A ghost who can be seen by only a single living soul. An angel who must accomplish a mission before being given his or her wings. Playwright Phil Olson merges two tried-and-true genres to give L.A. audiences his latest, Mom’s Gift, a sort of Topper-meets-It’s A Wonderful Life dramedy that proves a crowd-pleaser in its World Premiere engagement for The Group Rep at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre.

The “single living soul” this time round is 30ish Kat Swensen (Gina Yates), whose return to her suburban Minneapolis home on the occasion of her father’s sixtieth birthday is greeted by none other than Mom’s Ghost (Julia Silverman), who promptly informs her disbelieving daughter that she has been sent back to the family homestead on a mission (though it’s not quite clear to her yet what that task will be). What is certain is that eleven-months-dead Mom won’t make it up to heaven unless she can report “Mission Accomplished” to The Man Upstairs, and she’s only got today to do so.

unnamed (2) Since Kat and her Dad (Patrick Skelton) haven’t spoken since Mom’s funeral (and not all that much in the years she’s been away from home), Mom’s most likely assignment would be to facilitate a father-daughter reconciliation, a feat that’s easier said than done given that Kat would not even be back home today were this not a court-ordered visit. (It seems that Kat either shoved or slugged a police officer who’d stopped her for speeding, leading a court psychiatrist to determine that Kat’s anger management issues stem from a broken father-daughter relationship, hence the order to attend Dad’s birthday celebration in an attempt to mend fences.)

Also along for the festivities are Kat’s younger sister Brittney (understudy Joy Darash), grown-up boy-next-door Kevin (understudy Paul Cady), and Trish (Lisa McGee-Mann), the homecare nurse who attended Mom following the hit-and-run car crash that ended up taking her life.

unnamed (1) In tried-and-true Topper tradition, it takes Kat little or no time to adjust to Mom’s spectral presence, though whether she has any intention of listening to Mom’s frequent interjections is another question. So what if Mom keeps insisting that the only way Kat will find peace (and Mom get to heaven) is by mending fences with Dad. Kat is bound and determined not to forgive him for having been behind the wheel the night of the accident, no matter that a drunk driver was at fault and not Dad. In fact, Kat is so set on getting as far away as possible from Dad that she’s about to head off for two years in Africa, providing Somalis with her MIT-grad expertise in water purification.

unnamed Further complicating matters for Kat is the attention Dad seems to be paying Trish less than a year after Mom’s death, and when Dad takes the occasion of his birthday to make his feelings for Trish public, any likelihood of Mom fulfilling her celestial assignment seems doomed.

Mom’s Gift demonstrates playwright Olson’s gift at creating the kind of old-fashioned feel-good comedy that hardly gets written anymore, one that not only provides ample laughs but more than a few tears when things take a dramatic turn in its surprise-twisty last half-hour.

Much of Mom’s Gift’s mirth comes from Kat’s sexy dingbat of sister, a Hooters waitress who assumes that her older sibling’s expertise in water purification means she knows how to “make water, like Jesus,” a role that Darash plays with such infectious joie de vivre that I wouldn’t have minded if Olson had given Brittney twice as much stage time.

Another laugh-getter is virile-voiced offstage neighbor Mrs. Norquist, always ready to greet the Swensens’ latest visitor with a sassy quip or suggestive double-entendre made twice as funny when delivered in a “Yah sure, you betcha” Minnesohta accent. (Curiously, no one but the unseen Mrs. Norquist has even a hint of Minneapolis in his or her delivery, sort of like doing Tennessee Williams without a Southern drawl.)

Olson could do more to mine the comic possibilities inherent in the play’s “I can see you but nobody else can” scenario by upping Kat and Mom’s verbal interplay and having whoever else is in the room think Kat has gone off her rocker. Still, the playwright has created characters who go beyond sitcom dimensions, and when things eventually get serious, the folks who bring tears to our eyes are the very same ones who’ve been inspiring laughs from the get-go.

Olson is aided considerably by director Sherry Netherland and the fine cast she has assembled (though truth be told, a couple of them are rather long in the tooth for the characters they’re playing).

Though leading lady Yates would do well to modulate Kat’s stridency in early scenes, hers is solid work, and never more so than when older sis finally lets down her guard and we see just how deeply felt Yates’s performance is.

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Darash shows off ample comedic expertise (and curves) as Brittney, whom she manages to make multi-dimensional even when younger sis is at her ditziest. The always excellent Silverman makes the most of a role which limits her interactions to a single other character, no small task that. Skelton, taking over as Dad for the remainder of Mom’s Gift’s run, is quite good too, as is Cady, neither actor giving any indication that this was their Mom’s Gift debut. Last but not least, McGee-Mann gives quite possibly the evening’s richest performance in what may also be the play’s richest role.

As in the previously reviewed Collected Stories, The Paris Letter, and My Three Angeles, scenic designer Chris Winfield has created an authentic-looking, carefully appointed set, and one that ingeniously allows Mom’s Ghost to walk through at least one of its walls. Costume designer Lynda Pyka has given each character outfits we’d expect him or her to pick, and to answer one reviewer’s complaint that Mom’s costume wasn’t “angelic” enough, she’s wearing the dress she was buried in (besides which she’s not an angel yet). Sabrina Beattie’s lighting design and assistant director Steve Shaw’s sound design are both highly professional as well.

Mom’s gift is produced for The Group Rep by Laura Coker. Britt Chichester is stage manager and technical director.

Though it’s unlikely that Mom’s Gift will ever make it to Broadway, the popularity of Olson’s Don’t Hug Me series and the upcoming Samuel French publication of his latest could easily make Mom’s Gift a community and dinner theater favorite. That it is family-friendly fare is icing on the cake.

Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 27, 2013
Production photos: Sherry Netherland

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