Great Gardens!

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Great Gardens! is a fictional buffet restaurant (think Golden Corral) that thinks so highly of itself, it puts an exclamation mark in its name.

“Great Gardens!” is a new comedy that cracks open the idiosyncracies of Mormon family life, but does it in a much more subtle, less self-aggrandizing manner. The family in this play is, at least to some degree, your family and mine, but “Great Gardens!” doesn’t scream that fact to us through broad satire or slapstick parody (even though Mormon culture would be an easy target for it). Instead, it presents the characters and all their quirks, and lets us slowly realize that, like it or not, we’re them and they’re us.

Written by Josh Brady two years ago at BYU, where it received a staged reading and then a small-scale production, “Great Gardens!” takes place in the titular restaurant in Houston. The family is celebrating the return of daughter Neilene (Susan Keller) from her LDS mission, and everyone’s got a satchel of problems to deal with.

The No. 1 problem is mom, Ilene (Reyna Ricks), the quintissential image-conscious Mormon Mom, worrying about whether the stake president, dining in the same restaurant, will notice her drinking a Diet Coke, or what people will think when they see the family sitting at the counter (which she says is a “bar”).

Ilene is a loving mother, but she hen-pecks everyone she can get her beak on. Suffering the brunt of it is her oldest son, Lyle (Nathan Mitchell), a returned missionary who has since been married and divorced and is now inactive and — the biggest embarrassment of all — doesn’t wear his garments anymore.

Lyle and Ilene spar constantly, especially when Ilene starts expressing undue concern over the weight Neilene may have gained while in England, and Lyle rushes to his sister’s defense.

Also in the family is sister Sariah (Brooklyn Hale), a 20-year-old who is showing every sign of becoming just like her mother. This doesn’t bode well for her fiance, the already-submissive Brook (Ben Sansom).

Finally, there’s dad Neil (Joel R. Wallin) and younger brother Jared (Mason Reed Lefler), who also take after each other. Neil is quiet most of the time, not because he’s been beaten into submission by Ilene, but because he’s learned to choose his battles wisely. (When he does fight her, he wins.) Jared earns some of the biggest laughs of the play simply by trying to eat his dinner, oblivious to the mayhem surrounding him.

Josh Brady has a keen ear for dialogue. The teens talk like teens, the Texans talk like Texans, and the Mormons talks like Mormons. Sarah complains about her hair being messed up in Lyle’s car on the way over, and about how she’s hungry. Finally she says, “Fine, I’ll just suffer,” to which Lyle adds, “In silence, please.” Ilene wants a taste of something Lyle’s eating, even though Lyle is all the way at the end of the counter — which means she passes her fork down the line to get a sample. Unable to see why no one wants to do this, she says, “You act like we asked you to poop a cantaloupe.”

The performances generally complement the excellent script (which, now that I’ve seen the play twice, has deeper nuances in the characters’ relationships than I’d thought). Ricks is outstanding as the huge-haired mother who slowly realizes that everything is not always about her, and Keller’s Neilene earns sympathy as the character who is the unwilling catalyst for most of the action.

The others give realism (mostly comic) to their roles, making the ensemble as a whole very strong. This family is a smorgasbord of dysfunction, and they’re a delight to watch.

I normally don't like shows with exclamation marks in their titles, but I made an exception for this one, since it was only quoting the name of a restaurant (and because I suspect Josh Brady recognizes the inherent cheesiness in putting punctuation like that in your play title. At least I hope he does).

A fun game to play while watching this show at the Little London Dinner Theater: Every time the bell rings in the play, indicating that fresh rolls are ready, you eat one of Little London's delicious rolls right there at your table. I believe this means you'll be eating about five rolls over the course of the show, which actually is a little less than I usually have. Man, I love those things.

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