'Making God Laugh' mines sobering truths

Family is the crucible for so much of who we become. Our parents and siblings help shape us, and if we’re fortunate, love and happy memories sustain us through adulthood. But deeper, darker themes can intrude: impossible expectations, hard-wired insults, passions unrecognized or dismissed.

Sean Grennan’s Making God Laugh, the (literal) holiday show at Actors’ Playhouse, explores that fertile, maddening familial territory over a 30-year period. Each scene takes place on a different holiday, as grown siblings return to their parents’ empty nest for a meal, an appetizer that nearly everyone hates and, from control-freak matriarch Ruthie, a psychological inquisition.

The play may sound oh-so-serious, but it’s actually a beautifully acted comedy that deepens as it plays out, so that by the end you’re moved by each character’s journey. If casting is half the battle in crafting an effective production, director David Arisco has surrounded himself with terrific actors, choosing Peter Haig, Angie Radosh, Gregg Weiner, Deborah L. Sherman and Michael Focas to play the dysfunctional family in Making God Laugh.

The play begins with a 1980 Thanksgiving gathering at the home of Ruthie (Radosh) and Bill (Haig), a devoted Catholic couple whose decor involves a perpetually askew portrait of the Virgin Mary, an inexpensive print of The Last Supper and, by the front door, a plaque listing the Ten Commandments. So it comes as no surprise that Ruthie’s favorite child — the “good son,” as his envious older brother calls him — is Thomas (Focas), a young man soon to enter the priesthood.

Older son Richard (Weiner), a long-haired former high school football star, is now demanding to be called Rick, bristling and bellowing a correction whenever someone calls him “Ricky” or “Richard.” He’s a self-styled hipster ladies man who, through the course of the play, proves himself an unreliable predictor of the next big thing. He buys a salmon-colored Pacer and a yellow Pinto, thinks the disastrous Yugo will be huge, is sure Y2K will destroy the country and advises his sister to by stock in Enron, for example.

Sis Maddie (Sherman) is anxiety in female form, and no wonder. Ruthie never passes up an opportunity to suggest that Maddie should lose weight, improve her kooky wardrobe, give up acting, get married and reproduce. The deepest pain in the play flows from Ruthie’s inability to turn off the critical monologue and Maddie’s hopeless longing for her mother’s approval — or at least acceptance.

Part of the fun of Making God Laugh is the way it walks theatergoers down memory lane via Ellis Tillman’s era-evocative costumes, Gene Seyffer’s rendering of the parents’ home with its floral wallpaper, Luke Klingberg’s effective lighting and Elmo E. Lanclos III’s sound design, which bridges scenes with once-huge hits and memorable news reports.

But what makes the play much more than the goofy comedy it initially seems to be is the skillful, detailed way that five fine actors take the audience on a journey through the evolution and aging of a family. Thanks to Radosh, Haig, Weiner, Sherman and Focas, Making God Laugh is funny, moving and genuinely resonant.