The structure of Making God Laugh, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is straightforward. A nuclear family of five is presented in four scenes: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Year's Eve becoming New Year's 2000 and Easter 2010. It's like Same Time Next Year, the family edition.
With a crucifix on the wall, the Ten Commandments above the door and a statue of the Virgin Mary, it's a very Catholic household. This adds some edge to the saying that one of the characters quotes, the title references and the play illustrates: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Variously attributed to Woody Allen and "Old Proverb," it's quoted in a number of sermons counseling humility rather than questioning divine benevolence.
In 1980, the three grown children have left the nest and are returning for the holiday. Maddie (Sasha Shay) is the misunderstood daughter, an aspiring actress continually belittled by her mother for not being thin enough to capture a husband. Richard (Rigel Schmitt) is the troubled son, the former high school football star, now tending bar, bathed in Brut and hair spray. Thomas (Luke Sikora) is the good son, studying for the priesthood but not taking himself too seriously.
Ruthie (Teresa L. Desch) is the mother who wants everything about the holiday to be perfect (as she tells us repeatedly) and pushes her children to be her idea of flawless. Bill (Randy Wayne) is the quiet and affectionate dad, the peacemaker.
Written by regional theatre journeyman playwright and actor Sean Grennan, the play often seems assembled from a "heartwarming comedy" kit, with predictable character twists and payoffs for every repeated theme. Both despite and because of that, it is frequently funny and delivers emotional moments, especially in the final scene. The humor is mostly gentle, especially in resurrecting illusions of the past (remember Y2K?). Though this comedy skates quickly over the surface of many contemporary issues, some profound and even tragic implications may linger. Still, if this were dinner theatre you probably wouldn't need dessert.
Desch and Wayne are solid and subtle as the parents, though I felt I'd seen them play these characters before. Redwood Curtain first-timers Schmitt, Shay and Sikora are appealing and mostly convincing, and they all handled their set-piece moments well.
It's efficiently directed by Kristen Mack, with a handsome set by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Liz Uhazy, costumes by Marissa Menezes, sound by Mack and Tim Ward. Making God Laugh is onstage at Redwood Curtain weekends through March 8. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Of Rebecca Gilman, British drama critic Michael Billington wrote, "It is rare to find an American playwright dealing with ideas as well as emotions." Gilman's latest play, about a social worker deciding who gets custody of a drug addict's baby, is currently in its premiere production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. But the play that first made Gilman's reputation, Spinning Into Butter, will open at Gist Hall Theatre in a Humboldt State University production on Thursday, Feb. 27.
At first with humor and then directly, Spinning Into Butter tackles the twin themes of unconscious racial bias and political correctness on a college campus. After a highly successful premiere in 1999, it became the third most produced play across the U.S. through the following year. How pertinent it is today will probably be a subject of the discussion held after the play on opening night.
The HSU production is directed by Cassandra Hesseltine (actor, teacher, director for North Coast theatre and elsewhere, and currently Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commissioner.) "Being half Mexican has given me certain experiences while being half white has given me others," Hesseltine said. "I've drawn on both for this play."
The actors are Mary May, Giovanni Alva, Cody Miranda, Nadia Adame, Keith Brown, Galen Poulton and Indiana Steinkamp. Scenic design is by Jared Sorensen, lighting by Andrew Buderi, sound by Christopher Joe, makeup by Anna Duchi and Erin Henry.
Spinning Into Butter is performed at HSU for two weekends: Thursdays through Saturdays, Feb. 27-March 1, March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on March 9. 826-3928, http://HSUStage.blogspot.com.
Dell'Arte School second years present their adaptation of Italo Calvino's wonder tale, The Distance of the Moon, Friday through Sunday, Feb. 20-23 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. "Appropriate for all ages, but most suitable for adult audiences." This tale of a time when the earth and the moon were much closer is probably the most popular piece in Calvino's Cosmicomics, a set of stories that form a sweetly fantastical alternative history of the universe. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.
The following weekend at Dell'Arte, Ronlin Foreman brings back his acclaimed solo comedy, Pigeon Show (A Play of Fools), Feb. 27-March 1 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. Ronlin, a teacher at the Dell'Arte School, portrays five characters in a physical theatre presentation that's been called amusing and disturbing. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.
On March 14, Ferndale Rep opens its production of the musical comedy Monty Python's Spamalot at the earlier time of 7:30 p.m. 786-5483, www.ferndalerep.org.