BWW Reviews: Humor and Heart on the Menu at Gamm's THE BIG MEAL
The family dinner table symbolizes the very heart of the home. University studies and community initiatives alike outline the benefits of mealtime conversations, stressing the sit-down dinner as an essential component in developing healthy relationships between couples, siblings, and parents and children. Playwright Dan LeFranc takes that familiar domestic image a step further in The Big Meal, where the dinner table literally sets the stage for chronicling the lives and loves of five generations of one family.
The play opens with Sam and Nicole's meet-cute in a restaurant. A somewhat antagonistic initial exchange leads the pair to an amusingly-awkward first date. Sam and Nicole approach each step in their relationship with comic hesitance; neither is looking for a long-term commitment, they feel marriage is passé, and having children is a horrific fate not to be contemplated. Naturally, the laid-back Sam and high-strung Nicole fall deeply in love and, despite some early bumps in the road, marry and start a family of their own.
Eight actors play multiple roles in The Big Meal. The story unfolds through a series of vignettes, all of which happen around the dinner table, and as each character grows older, a different actor or actress steps in to take over the part. Under the direction of Tyler Dobrowsky, the Gamm's ensemble company - including Amanda Ruggiero, Joe Short, Karen Carpenter, Steve Kidd, Emeline Easton, Elliot Peters, Wendy Overly, and Richard Donelly - absolutely excels in this creative environment.
The Gamm's performers give a true ensemble effort, not only masterfully delivering LeFranc's rapid-fire and often overlapping dialogue sequences, but also crafting the ever-shifting characters as recognizable individuals. The actors diligently maintain each character's identity through small mannerisms and idiosyncrasies; habitual gestures first used by Ruggiero as young Nicole are evident again in Carpenter and later in Overly, for example. The cast also ties the generations together through specific traits and behaviors common to several members of the family. Late in the production, Overly and Donelly share one of the play's most poignant moments as the aged Nicole and Sam, a scene which resonates all the more for the depth of family history established by the ensemble.
None of the family's dinners happen at home; instead, generations of Sam and Nicole's family - from Sam's colorful parents to the couple's imaginative and introverted great-grandson - meet together in café-curtained restaurants for weekday dinners, celebrations of special events, and major holidays. The family's relationships develop - for better or worse - through quickly-changing scenes, often signaled by a subtle variation in onstage lighting. In one moment, Sam and Nicole share a loving exchange in their favorite restaurant, and then in the blink of an eye, the place and time shift and the characters start arguing loudly over their menus.
The Big Meal, though spanning several decades in this family's life, is not a period piece. Costumes and sets do not evoke a specific time frame, neither do major historical events intrude on the intimacy of the narrative. LeFranc's focus is on the dynamics between these specific people, and on the daily events - both life-changing and commonplace - that shape the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, cousins and siblings, and the older and younger generations. This approach grounds the production, and while The Big Meal's quirky characters provide several scenes of laugh-out-loud comedy, the narrative resonates with authenticity and has real substance and depth.
Sam and Nicole's family celebrations and heartaches strike home. Through conflicts with in-laws, unexpected illnesses, relatives too-loudly sharing obnoxious jokes in public, and the joyous arrival of children and grandchildren, theatergoers become invested in the family's trials and triumphs; likely, audience members will recognize aspects of their own family in these characters as well.
Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal plays at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI through February 9, 2014. Ticket prices range from $38 to $48. Discount rates are available for subscribers groups, seniors and students. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org. Please note: The Big Meal contains strong adult language.
Photo by Peter Goldberg.