Smell the lutefisk

Olson’s Nice Family Christmas premieres

Photo: Doug Engalla Olson drew on his own family drama to create a holiday experience that many can relate to. From left to right: Greg D. Barnett, Patrick Burke, Marcia Rodd, Belinda Howell, and Fox Carney.

Photo: Doug Engalla
Olson drew on his own family drama to create a holiday experience that many can relate to. From left to right: Greg D. Barnett, Patrick Burke, Marcia Rodd, Belinda Howell, and Fox Carney.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

The audience-wide guffaws and bursts of laughter at the world premiere of prolific playwright Phil Olson’s award-winning comedy, A Nice Family Christmas, are proof that Minnesota humor has a universal appeal.

Granted, the emotional reserve of this “don’t hug me” family, as well as the typical Norwegian-American Christmas Eve setting, firmly place the play in the Upper Midwest.

The stench/aroma of lutefisk greets each new arrival to the Christmas Eve dinner. (The audience can only imagine it.) No one of this generation can stand the stuff. It’s all about old traditions versus the new.

Opening Nov. 4 at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep Theatre in North Hollywood, a Los Angeles theater district, the play runs through Dec.18, playing Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Despite the Norwegian-American background, the play’s plot points have contemporary resonance. Family crises such as separations, coming out gay, divorce, alcoholism, and cancer provide the play’s more serious scaffolding, but the humor is outrageously frank and downright funny.

The setting and characters are based on Olson’s own family’s Christmas history, modified and tweaked with the playwright’s comedic yet soul-searching style.

Conflicts and meltdowns pepper the entire play, during which the wise mother launches a competition among the family members as to who can be the most selfless. As the playwright himself asks during an audience-cast talkback, “Isn’t every Christmas like a test?” In the long run, as several inter-generational conflicts reach some resolution, family love wins out. Just don’t hug anyone to show that love! There are many other ways to get that across, and A Nice Family Christmas celebrates them with a contemporary edge and a deep-rooted love of kinship.

Olson grew up in Edina, Minn. His father’s grandparents emigrated from Norway and homesteaded a farm near Grand Forks, N.D. His mother’s grandparents also came from Norway and settled in Virginia, Minn.

He didn’t set out to be a writer. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in mathematics, received an MBA from the University of Chicago, and initially pursued a career in real estate. It was only then he discovered that what he really wanted to do was write comedy.

His first play, Crappie Talk, which was set in a fictitious town in northern Minnesota, premiered at the same Lonny Chapman Group Rep Theatre in 1997. Since then, Olson has written 14 published plays that have had more than 350 productions around the world.

Many of his plays are part of the “Don’t Hug Me” series, including Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married. Drawing on the Nordic tendency to be reserved if not downright repressed when it comes to expressing emotion, the plays nonetheless appeal across the ethnic spectrum.

There also was a previous play in the current series, the 2000 production of A Nice Family Gathering.

The newest installment in the series, A Nice Family Christmas, will go on to open in seven other cities this year. Directed by Doug Engalla and produced by Alyson York, the stellar cast for the current production at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep Theatre includes Marcia Rodd, Greg D. Barnett, Patrick Burke, Truett Jean Butler, Fox Carney, Rebekah Dunn, and Belinda Howell. Several have appeared in Olson’s previous productions.

For further information, check the website at

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Odins of Raven, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.