We couldn’t actually see theater without them, but lighting designers are rarely on our minds as we watch plays. It’s a little different with Tom Dudzick’s 1990 comedy “Greetings!” He’s made the lights a crucial part of his story. And Martin E. Vreeland, the designer of the lighting effects in the production at Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, in Rockland County, has gotten them all just right.
The flickering lamps in the neat but faded living room (designed by James J. Fenton) tell of an old house with a balky electrical system; the strings of colored holiday bulbs suggest inhabitants holding fast to tradition; and the Christmas tree — well, keep an eye on that Christmas tree. It will surprise you, as it does the Gorskis, who have gathered to celebrate the holiday.
Surprises are nothing new for this working-class Catholic family in Pittsburgh, and it isn’t just that their lights have a habit of going out at inopportune moments. A stroke of bad luck forced Phil, the cranky softy who heads the household, to cut short a promising baseball career in favor of a more mundane life as a storekeeper. With his wife, Emily, he has had to raise a developmentally impaired son who, at the age of 30, has somehow begun showing signs of, well, higher cognition.
And now, on Christmas Eve, their other son, Andy, has arrived from New York with his new fiancée, whose name, disconcertingly, is Randi Stein. She isn’t Catholic, she isn’t Christian, she isn’t even Jewish. She professes to be — horrors! — an atheist.
Penguin audiences have watched Mr. Dudzick deal with some of these religious themes, probably more effectively, in his plays “Over the Tavern” and “Our Lady of South Division Street” (since renamed “Miracle on South Division Street”). In those, faith is an elastic concept, and the author’s tone is one of genial skepticism. In “Greetings!” which was written before the others, the playwright enlists the services of an oracular angel, who seems to leave little room for doubt about the existence of the spirit realm.
Although he seems to be an ordinary guy in a boring sweater — Patricia E. Doherty designed the apt costumes — he can materialize and dematerialize almost at will. He can redirect telephone calls without touching the phone. And he has an effortless command of BBC-speak. Played at Penguin with twinkling superiority and unearthly composure by Jonathan Fielding, the angel explains that he’s arrived to “shed some light” on the deep questions under discussion. But first he’d like a cup of coffee.
Thomas Caruso, who directed the winningly slapstick “Around the World in 80 Days” last season, takes a gentler approach with the situation comedy of “Greetings!” Happily, there’s a cast of seasoned pros to flesh out the thinly written characters. Beth Fowler, best known for her appearances in Broadway musicals, invests Emily with an air of weary, wary hopefulness. Richard Kline, familiar to television viewers from his years on “Three’s Company,” brings to the role of Phil a simmering grief for what might have been. And Rusty Ross and Rachel Stern make an appealing, believable young couple. But it is Mr. Fielding’s quicksilver performance that gives “Greetings” its glitter. Even Mr. Vreeland’s magical Christmas tree can’t outshine him.