Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Dining Room grabs at mostly fond memories

From the footlights :  In 1982, American playwright A. R. Gurney from Buffalo, NY was 52 years old when off-Broadway produced his 18 overlapping vignettes about the 20th century dining room. When the dining room was special, when it was the centerpiece of the house. Often called a "memoirist of the vanishing WASP", Gurney's world transcends such an artificial limit. E.g. across the years I've known many folks of Jewish, Irish, Italian, South Asian, Central American, Indonesian descent among others -- all of whom have dining rooms that get used robustly as family gathering places. Like ghosts revisiting favourite haunts, the 57 characters played here by just six actors range in age from cheeky grammar school kids to aging fading seniors. They remind us of times past and present, lit.& fig. "Present" we put aside our iPhones and the filters of Facebook or FaceTime : instead we engage one another on a flesh-&-blood footing. Gurney's 18 vignettes are wrought with clever sentiment, and Western Gold executes them lovingly & crisply.

How it's all put together :  Imagine you're the "third eye" viewing 70 years of meals at various peoples' dining rooms (all performed, serially, on the same set). Here's how the back cover of the Dramatists Play Service script describes what you'll see:

"The action is a mosaic of interrelated scenes -- some funny, some touching, some rueful. The actors change roles, personalities and ages as they portray a wide variety of characters from little boys to stern grandfathers and from giggling teenage girls to Irish housemaids. Each vignette introduces a new set of people and events : a father lectures his son on grammar and politics; a boy returns from boarding school to discover his mother's infidelity; a senile grandmother doesn't recognize her own sons at Thanksgiving dinner; a daughter, her marriage a shambles, pleads to return home, etc."

I.e. some 100 minutes of stage-time, 18 scenes, on average just over five minutes each before the next dissolve-&-fade-out into another snapshot. You see dining room moments lived up close and personal over 3/4 of a century -- from roughrider Teddy Roosevelt's fin de siecle America still using horse-drawn carriages to shortly after the fall of Saigon as engineered by Dick Nixon when Toyotas were kicking Chevy butts all across the land.

The gist of the gab :  Carl Jung famously said that in dreams, rooms in a house reflect symbolically various aspects and levels of consciousness. If true for dreams, equally so, why not, for fictional "I Remember Mama" type shows on stage. The dining room : a seat of sentimental recall, your "happy times" place; a site for clashes, when a kid's hyperactive amygdala smacks up against Father's prefrontal cortex that responds sternly; a set-to spot, where cognitive debates descend into affective hissy-fits with family members or guests ginned up on drink or hubris.

Mr. Gurney's script runs through the century in these regards. From references to "instant coffee on Eastern Airlines" [Sc.1] to "But it's just the tour cast -- Katharine Cornell isn't playing Saint Joan" [Sc.4] to "At boarding school he'll just get mixed up with women who wear lipstick and long pants" [Sc.8] to "I'm doing a classroom project for my Amherst anthropology class on the eating habits of a vanishing culture -- a slide-show on the WASPs of the U.S. northeast" [Sc.13] to "Uncle Henry's 'bachelor attachments' were called out by Binky Byers down at the Club", Dad announces, and son responds "Oh, you mean he's a fruit?" [Sc.15]. 

Post-show chat reveals insights : At a talk-back tonight I asked cast member and Western Gold Artistic Director Anna Hagan whether she thought Gurney was being sentimental or wistful or just ironic in writing such a clever but extended schtick around dining room manners, dottering but doting maids, polished silver and Waterford crystal, snippets and sniggers of chit-chat shared at the table. 

She responded : "Eating is such a basic, primitive thing, whenever people love one another they sit and eat together." In a word, all-of-the-above did Gurney intend. 

Fellow actor Adele Noronha, meanwhile -- she raised in her youth in India post-Brit but whose parents still patterned her upbringing thus  -- Noronha said Gurney was addressing "the illusion of culture" : peoples' beliefs that their nano-second on earth and all the social niceties they subscribe to have core importance. 

Naw, she implied, they're just polite & hypocritical but well-meant customs going ka-bump! ka-bump! ka-bump! down the steps of history until new customs supplant them.

Production values abound at PAL : Glenn MacDonald's set and props and the staging arrangements are what grab the viewer instantly. The action occurs in a quasi-theatre-in-the-round mode, with an omnipresent and ever-seeing dining room table at centre. A double-pedestal highly varnished affair with inlaid carvings, it is a piece of furniture quite to die for. Visually and contextually, the whole set is designed to be as if snatched from a museum -- red velvet ropes on brass stanchions encircle the stage at its start and are quite a brilliant visual underscore of the play's themes.

Around the edges of the set, pedestal tables hold goblets and silver serving pieces high-lighted by pin spots. Upstage three rich stained glass transoms harken back to earlier decades and their various accoutrements we admire and pine for in our plastic culture. WGT is particularly indebted to Leslie Madsen of Mount Pleasant Furniture -- prop maven for Hollywood North -- for her eager and sumptuous supplies.

Adding to all this richness is Sound Designer Matthew MacDonald-Bains' varied musical score of classics and more modern cuts that match each scene delightfully.

Acting hi-lites : Part of the fun of the staging set out by playwright Gurney is that the six actors each play roles out-of-age : the younger actors depict hobbled servants while the older ones play birthday party kids in short pants with abandon and glee. 

To single out any one of the six performers as superior to the others would be, I think, unfair to them all, although the "repair the broken table" sequence [Sc.9] was just priceless : Kate Dion-Richard and Keith Martin Gordey writhing and twisting under the table to discern its faulty bits that -- like them -- need some serious t.l.c. 

On a personal note the Thanksgiving scene [Sc.10] with Anna Hagan as Grandma gripped by such senility she doesn't know her own sons was particularly touching. My mother always had failing elders at our multi-leaf'd dining room table that sat some two dozen folks. (To this day while everyone holds hands, I sing "Come Ye Thankful People, Come" a capella by way of pre-dinner grace with guests at our Cariboo cabin each Thanksgiving. Then we tuck into the turkey that was roasted in our ancient word-burning McLary.)

Shortly after there's daughter (Dion-Richard) who bewails her failed-marriage followed by failed-lover followed by failed lesbian liaison [Sc.14].  She entreats Dad "I want to start all over again, I just can't go back!" Dad responds "Neither can !" A fist of scotch in hand and two under the belt, he begrudges her and her three kids just a week or 10 days max. back "home". Yeah, no question, tears welled up.

Finally, the three women's ultra-slo-mo setting up of the dinner table -- while Pop blueprints for Richard, the eldest son, how he wants his obit written up including his lowest golf score and an Ernest Hemingway fishing moment in Florida [Sc.17]. This scene was simply a delicious! bit of theatre blocking and stage business. Then came the closing snapshot : Gatling gun yakkety-yak & jibber-jabber with all six actors talking at once over one another as they sat down for the last supper. Brilliant! work by Director Chelsea Haberlin in its contrast to the just finished slo-mo table set-up scene.

Who gonna like : Gurney's The Dining Room is not great literature of the calibre of John Updike, Walker Percy or John Cheever who specialized in chronicling the demise of tradition & custom & good breeding, as it was called back in the day, in what many complain is now a callous and crude au courant USA. TDR is a comedy of manners with its various sentiments and wistfulness and ironies as previously noted. TDR is for people who delight in small theatre in an embracing and rewarding venue. There is much to laugh at and relate to. Six actors give flat-out Bonkers! energy during their performances of 57 parts in 18 overlapping scenes that tie together thematically very well indeed. Sound to you like a night's worthy alternative to rom-com Netflix movies or the Canucks or the Kardashians? Just 10 days left !

Particulars :  Playwright A. R. Gurney.  Production by Western Gold Theatre.  Performances at PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street, thru November 8th (schedules vary).  Run-time 100 minutes plus intermission.  Ticket & schedule information by phone at 604.363.5734 or over the Internet at URL

Production & artistic team :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Glenn MacDonald.  Assistant Set Designer R. Todd Parker. Costume Designer Meredith Grantier.  Sound Designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Stage Manager Anthony Liam Kearns.  Assistant Stage Manager Tanya Mathivanan.  

Performers :  Kate Dion-Richard.  Alen Dominguez.  Keith Martin Gordey.  Anna Hagan.  Adele Noronha.  John Prowse.  


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