There were more than a few tearful swipes of the eyes and cheeks for audience members during Equinox Theatre’s latest production held at the Outlook Civic Centre last week.
It was all for good reason, as ‘Mom’s Gift’ may have been one of the most emotionally impactful shows put on by the local thespian group in its almost quarter-century of existence.
Running over three performances through November 21-23, the story gives us a glimpse into a few hours of the life of the Swenson family – a once-close group that has been fractured by the loss of its matriarch, who was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. On the day of her father’s 60th birthday, hot-tempered daughter Kat (Emily Vandenberg) begrudgingly shows up to her family home for the party, but she is soon visited by the ghost of her mom (Patti Haraldson), who informs her that she cannot rest until the two of them have completed a mission. It could be to repair Kat’s relationship with her dad (Phil Guebert), it could be to help Kat start a new relationship with former classmate Kevin (Kevin Guebert), who knows?
During the course of the story, which has a vibe along the lines of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, we meet Kat’s free-spirited sister Brittney (Jill Lee), who knows how to push her sister’s buttons and seems to be having trouble getting a head-start on being an adult on their own. We also meet Trish (Amber Turton), a health care worker who was with Kat and Brittney’s mom in her final days and is wrestling with her own emotional trauma from her death.
However, just in case you thought the story was all somber and tear-producing, there’s the nosy and heavily flirtatious next door neighbor played by Kirk Friggstad, who ‘went drag’ and helped provide those lighter, laughter-inducing moments at times during the play.
‘Mom’s Gift’ is a much more different play than we typically see from Equinox Theatre, and for that, the troupe is to be commended. The case knocks it out of the park with material that is heavy at times, other times light-hearted, and keeps the heartiness of the story close to its chest.
Phil Guebert as the father keeps the tone on point and you can tell he’s someone whose smiling on the outside while heartbroken internally. Most people familiar with Equinox Theatre would likely agree that Guebert is the glue that holds most performances together, and the same can be said here.
Patti Haraldson as the departed mother had a heavy job load of her own; combine a sense of loss as someone who left her family far too soon with the demeanor of a doting mother even from beyond the grave, using a nice dose of humor here and there. Haraldson shines in pulling off these duties nicely.
As Brittney, Jill Lee has to find a balance between someone who has no set direction in life (Brittney’s a waitress as Hooter’s in the beginning) while at the same time coping with loss and trying to hang on to something that will set her up for the future. In that, Lee succeeds in giving us a memorable character.
Amber Turton plays Trish, who we eventually learn has a secret to tell, but what is it? Through the course of the story, we learn that she had become close with Mom in her final days, and questions linger about exactly how close Trish and Dad are getting. Turton, who is coming into her own as an Equinox performer, plays it even-keel with soft restraint as we begin to learn more about Trish.
Kevin Guebert plays Kat’s potential boyfriend Kevin, and he has the opportunity to share several moments with several cast members. Guebert more than holds his own, and he’s a performer you watch closely because he’s often capable of saying more with his eyes and facial expressions than the dialogue on the page.
Finally, we have Kat, played by Equinox newcomer Emily Vandenberg. It’s not an easy task being cast in the lead role as you have to help lead the narrative along, but Emily pulls it off nicely. Kat is angry at both the world and her family for her mom’s death, and she’s someone who lives her life like an animal trapped in a corner; she’d rather lash out than address the heart of the matter. But we see that hard shell become soft throughout the story, and Vandenberg shines in what I hope isn’t her last Equinox show anytime soon.
By the time the show nears its conclusion, and Kat and Dad share a special moment with Mom, who Dad can now sense, the tears in the audience are visible. By the time Trish walks out and rings a very particular bell to signal ‘dinner time’, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
There’s that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ vibe.