Who, what, where, when ...
“The Dining Room” will be staged Friday, Saturday and Sunday and May 18, 19 and 20 at the Old Town Playhouse in Kenai. Shows are at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12 general admission and $10 for students and seniors, and are available at Charlotte’s in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna, and at the door.
When did you last spend time in a dining room?
Actors rehearse a scene from "The Dining Room" earlier this week. They are, from left, Brad Mabeus, Sally Cassano, Yvette Tappana, Crockett Schipman, Mechelle Hibpshman and Rebecca Gilman.
Playwright A.R. Gurney would bet it’s been awhile. But through his work, and that of the Kenai Performers, you can change that this weekend and next.
Gurney’s play, “The Dining Room,” examines the increasingly unused room as a metaphor for other facets of our culture that also are declining family traditions, togetherness and face-to-face communication.
“It’s hugely relevant right now,” said Laura Forbes, who is directing the show for the Kenai Performers. “We’re using this dining room to show how families are changing. ... Less people get together and eat in the dining room anymore, and even less do they meet face to face.”
The play is a series of vignettes funny, touching and sad showing families interacting in their dining room.
Mabeus and Hibpshman are a husband and wife at each other's throats over -- among other things -- turning the dining room table into a makeshift writing desk.
“It’s very naturalistic but at the same time there’s underlying moments of philosophy that are very heightened,” Forbes said. “It’s kind of funny how he brings those moments out. It’s almost sneaky.”
Taken as a whole, Gurney’s play speaks to how family time is losing the battle with cell phones, cable TV and other venues vying for attention, but it isn’t an idyllic homage to the Ward and June Cleaver standard of home and hearth, either. Far from it. The rare moments that are sickly sweet serve to point out someone’s hypocrisy, rather than set the tone for the play.
His characters are written to be real, with all the flaws and foibles that go with them. In many vignettes, the dining room serves as the setting for their dysfunction.
There’s the adulterous housewife, sharing a few charged moments with her also-married-but-not-to-her lover during her kid’s birthday party.
There’s the couple whose only words to each other are delivered with bite and exasperation, which fight apparently because they don’t know how else to treat each other.
A stingy grandfather, a holier-than-thou elitist, an overbearing mother and a businessman who considers a dining room a waste of space are a few of the characters that audiences will meet.
But just as real people are more than their flaws, Gurney’s characters have redeemable qualities, as well.
“Few characters are inherently unlikable in the script,” Forbes said. “You can see everybody’s point of view.”
Audiences will meet about 60 characters in the course of the play, which
are portrayed by 10 actors. Forbes said having actors play multiple characters has been the most difficult, and yet rewarding, challenge in staging the play.
“It’s such a great play for characterization,” she said. “It gives actors an opportunity to try a variety of things.
“One of our greatest challenges is how 10 people can play 60 roles. I think that can be challenging for actors to push themselves to try new things without seeming silly. But you have to try to do that to make them distinct characters.”
Vignettes range in time up to about seven minutes. On one hand, if the audience doesn’t like a character, they only have to put up with them for a few minutes; on the other, actors only have those few minutes to make that character come to life and seem real enough for the audience to care one way or another about them.
Minimalist costume changes help establish each new character, but Forbes hopes the audience will quickly abandon any preconceived notions that the actors should share the same age, physical characteristics or gender of who they’re playing.
“The characters range in age from 6 to 80, and the actors are about 14 to 60,” Forbes said. “Hopefully the audience will buy into it pretty quickly. We’ve got grandmothers playing children, we’ve got the 14-year-old playing someone’s mother.”
Forbes said the play would appeal to a broad audience, but there is some adult language and themes, so she doesn’t recommend it for kids. Beyond that, anyone who’s experienced family through a dining room, or wonder what it might be like to do so, should find plenty to feast on.
“It is comedy, but it’s also human,” Forbes said. “... The whole idea is this could be a dining room anywhere.”
Jenny Neyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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