A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room,” directed by Tesia Childs at Cape Fear Playhouse from Big Dawg Productions, is a wonderfully charming look at family life that hits the spot just before Thanksgiving. Gurney is probably best known to Wilmington audiences as the author of “Love Letters,” the two-person epistolary play about the life-long friendship and star-crossed love of two patrician New Englanders.
In “The Dining Room,” six performers, Emily Gomez, Jay Zadeh, Josh Bailey, Beth Corvino, Randy Davis, and Vanessa Welch, bring to life about 18 vignettes set in and around the dining rooms of WASPs in the 20th century. There is not one overarching story arc, so much as over-arching themes: the importance of making family central to life, even in the twilight of a vanishing world. Storylines span the 1930s to early 1980s, and include expected family scenes but also attempt to deconstruct the dining room, literally; like when a psychiatrist (Josh Bailey) listens to an architect (Randy Davis) make an argument to cut the dining room up into a patient waiting room and office space for Bailey. Or Vanessa Welch unexpectedly instigates a family war over using the dining room as her office to type her grad-school term paper. Her husband (Bailey) feels it should be a sacred space dedicated to family life. While Welch’s character, a newly emancipated woman, wants to get a grad degree and work outside the home—away from their children—the turf war is about much more than just the location of dinner, but about what all of it means for their family life and future.
One of the more interesting choices the performers and Childs bring to life is the older scenes have more of a satirical feel, whereas scenes set later in the 20th century are more subtle. For example, in the 1930s when Jay Zedeh is joined for breakfast by his two children, Welch and Davis, the ensuing series of corrections to their grammar, manners and attitude about the world is almost satirical—including a lecture about how time spent at the dining-room table with his family is more important than being on time for school. (Especially when the teacher is talking about the government stepping in during The Depression, which would, of course, lead to a closing of private schools.) Zadeh does an admirable job as an overbearing father trying to find patience for the children who really should be seen and not heard. One can’t help but notice, though he corrects his son’s behavior—”I know people who stand when a beautiful woman enters the room”—he does not himself stand or offer to help his wife with her chair. He can give orders, but he can’t seem to model behavior of a gentleman. Davis is worn out with trying to make his father happy and it’s easy to see the wheels turning in his head during the lecture.
It is an interesting contrast to another almost satirical dining-room crisis when Beth Corvino can’t seem to decide if dinner is going to be served or not. Her husband just got a phone call right when they were getting ready to sit down. The children are at the table, the lamb is ready. But can she give the order for dinner to commence? It only gets worse when Davis enters and reveals the phone call is about someone saying something terribly improper to his younger brother at the club. Now he must go down to the club and challenge the persecutor of his little brother to a fight! It is a matter of family honor!
Davis and Corvino hit the farcical nature of the scenario perfectly by playing with total commitment the seriousness of the situation and allegation. They also get the scene that really explores the twilight of a vanishing era. Corvino plays Great Aunt Harriot, who is demonstrating for her nephew, home from Amherst, all the niceties and intricacies of the carefully inherited napkins, placemats, pistol-handled knives, and crystal-finger bowls, etc. She is so clearly enamored of the memories and lovely daintiness of all she describes while Davis snaps pictures of her and the family heirlooms, it makes her dismay on learning Davis is putting together an anthropology project about her all the more painful.
Emily Gomez has one of my favorite roles in the show as the young woman presented by her mother (Corvino) with a “choice” about how to spend an evening: at the youth dance or with her inappropriate and eccentric aunt at a play. There is the surface-level mother-daughter struggle occurring between the two, but Gomez’s face tracks the shifting sands of self discovery: Who am I? Why don’t I like the things I am expected to like? What do I really want? Who do I want to be? The personal quest plays out subtly, but beautifully and without being too obvious to be a parody of adolescence. She also gets the big final monologue of the evening and delivers it with enough self-absorption and self-delusion to capture the noblesse oblige of the vanishing age that Gurney memorializes. She perfectly sets the mood for nostalgia that one wants to walk out the door wrapped in after this show.
Scott Davis’ set is remarkably versatile for spanning a half-century. The China hutch at the back wall, flanked by gold-leaf sconces, complement the simple chandelier above the table. In the 1950s, it is tasteful but expensive. In the late ‘70s, when Jay Zadeh is an aging family patriarch, watching his grandchildren spend his money and flee the nest, it is faded former glory in a lonely man’s house.
“The Dining Room” looks simple but actually has a lot of moving parts and subtlety. Childs has done a wonderful job assembling a very skilled group of actors who make multiple families with all their gloss and warts alike come alive. They remind the audience why time at the table together is important, without getting lost in the land of Hallmark. It is entertaining, witty, fun, and thought-provoking, with great writing, superb acting and thoughtful direction.