BWW Reviews: Compelling THE BIG MEAL at Dobama
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
Dan LeFranc's THE BIG MEAL is a ninety-minute comedy-drama about life, death, meeting, dating, marriage, child-rearing, the importance of casual comments and interactions, and the quickness of existence.
Nicole is a waitress in a non-descript restaurant someplace in America. Sam enters, they interact, go on a date in which she informs him that she isn't into commitment and "I don't really wanna' know about your life, and I don't want you to know much about mine."
Things quickly happen. In less than five minutes of stage time, Sam produces a wedding ring, the non-commitment becomes a bonded relationship, they form a family. We are set into a pattern of flow in which five generations of a family are revealed, from a flirtation to a final goodbye, in one setting...the restaurant in which Nicole and Sam originally met.
The play is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family whose tale turns out to be events to which others can easily identify. It's pretty hard to watch without thinking of your family's meals, who was there, and what went on.
The eight actors play all of the reincarnations of members of the family that ultimately grows from the union between Sam and Nicole.
The average theatre-goer usually knows little about the format for scripts or the challenges that directors face in staging certain plays because of the dictates of a play's author. Usually, this maters little. In the case of THE BIG MEAL, now on stage at Dobama, having this knowledge adds to the appreciation of what director Joel Hammer and his talented cast confronted in performing the play.
Play scripts are usually vertical pages onto which the name of a character is printed followed by his/her lines. Then another character's name, followed by her/his lines. The format continues throughout the script with the assumption that one line will follow another. That works for most plays. It doesn't work for THE BIG MEAL. LeFranc has two, three or more characters talking at the same time. That's a normal life pattern, especially at mealtime. The flow here is not one speaks, another speaks. It's usually lots of people talking at the same time.
The problem for LeFranc was how to indicate these constant overlaps on paper to clue the director and actors. A man of the 21st century, he turned the page on the side, used a spread sheet, and had the names of the characters along the top of each column and their lines below. Sounds easy? Yes, to format, but the challenge for director Joel Hammer was, "How do actors know when to speak, how to react to the cacophony of words, how to convey that they are often a person who in one scene was a daughter or son and is now the son or daughter or mother or father of the person he/she just was?"
Hammer and his cast miraculously found the key. The process is so natural, so well conceived and developed, that the play becomes a series of reality scenes rather than theatrical stagings.
Hammer also needed to clue audiences as to when one character died without having death scenes. He eliminated the use of all food, except in rare instances. The "angel of death" delivers real food meals only to a person who is about to die.
The cast is universally excellent. Bob Goddard is exceptional portraying all the older men. He is especially effective as Sam, now in advanced stage dementia, staring off into space with blankness on his face and unresponding eyes.
Anne McEvoy clearly develops each of the older women. As the aged Nicole, we emotionally experience her meeting her newest great grandchild before succumbing to life's final stage.
Tom Woodward is clear in his two incarnations, texturing each to make for clarity of characterization.
Ryan Vincent and Emily Kenville each are given the difficult the task of portraying all of the children...from young, through tweens and teens. Each does so with complete professionalism and realism.
Derdriu Ring portrays each of the mid-range women with conviction and clarity of character.
Geoff Know and Llewie Nuñez, the original Sam and Nichol, transfer personages effectively making it clear that they have taken on new personas.
Scenic designer Laura Carlson's restaurant set works well. Rob Peck's lighting design helps isolate scenes and helps move the plot along.