“If you don’t want to waste your life,” one of the first lines in the play “The Big Meal” admonishes us, “then don’t.” And very near the end of Dan LeFranc’s short but insightful and all-encompassing play, another character, a young boy, wonders about life: “where does all the time go? It seems like a lot but when you think about it, it’s really not so much.”
It gives away nothing about this play, now playing at The Gamm Theatre, to reveal that these lines and these quotes are revelatory of this beautiful play that distills the sweet and fleeting ephemera of existence down to ninety extraordinary minutes. If food is the stuff of life then life itself is the stuff of “The Big Meal.” And this production, well directed by Tyler Dobrowsky, is a satisfying and soul-nurturing experience.
The structure of this show presents staccato snap shot scenes of five generations of an American family, meeting and eating at a restaurant in Anytown USA; short takes that span eighty years and in which eight actors take on different generational roles, trading off as the years fly. This description may sound gimmicky but the effect certainly isn’t, as what we witness here spins out like a delicate web that accumulates the important little moments of our lives and captures all of the complex connections and compelling chaos that always occurs when family gets together. Life occurs at the dining room table; it is for that reason that our holiday feasts are celebrated and ritualized.
And it is life and, of course, its inevitable conclusion, that is celebrated here. At the outset of the play we witness the sputtering beginnings of a life-long relationship, the kindling sparks that start to fly as a young couple meet by chance in a restaurant. These initial scenes are quite short, almost glib, others scenes lengthen, but all will linger in the memory after you leave the theatre. Short bursts of subsequent scenes that play out like a chain reaction will reveal the couple’s courtship, marriage, their dinners with the in-laws, the arrival of children and all the inevitable triumphs, tragedies and imbroglios the march of time will provide.
“The Big Meal” is a sweet, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking and ultimately life-affirming play. Anyone who has ever fallen in love, been in a family or has partaken of a tumultuous Thanksgiving dinner will recognize the scenes depicted here. But the arc of eighty years, though compressed, does demand that life’s opposite be given it’s due too. That death, our inevitable end, plays such a big part of “the Big Meal” is part of the play’s point. Life is short and, if we choose to make it so, sweet. But do so while you still can.
As befitting a tale that is told onstage, set in the somewhat onstage setting of a restaurant and around the always theatrical family table the depiction of death that we get here is ritualized and is at once as formal and familiar as any table setting. I shan’t spoil or diminish this effect with description, suffice it to the say that this casually formalized stylization, though not at all gruesome, is still somewhat unsettling.
But it is this inevitability that makes these fragilely forged connections of romance and family all the more precious and poignant. Especially as there is nothing extraordinary about the people we meet here; that they are more or less ordinary helps to make the point of this play strike closer to home. It is to this play’s credit that much occurs that we don’t see; the mishaps and mayhem of life are alluded to but often occur between the scenes, clues are dropped like breadcrumbs throughout and what we witness is the effects these traumas, big and little, have on those within the family unit. If this play sometimes pulls its dramatic punches we certainly see the lasting impact of hits unseen.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the actors assembled here are so adept at creating a family unit that we come to care so deeply about in our brief time together. That we all eventually become our parents is both figuratively and literally true here, at the outset of the play Amanda Ruggerio and Joe Short play our young couple Sam and Nicole, as the play ensues they are replaced by pairings of Steve Kidd and Karen Carpenter then Wendy Overly and Richard Donelly. Along they way all switch out into other roles as the play demands. All in this ensemble are wonderful and these performers are well augmented by two young actors, Emeline Easton and Elliot Peters.
Tyler Dobrowsky orchestrates these proceedings with aplomb, coaxing out of the talented ensemble, despite the necessarily rapid-fire scope of the show, the subtle dynamics that are in play here. Playwright Dan LaFranc has an uncanny and witty ear for concise, contemporary dialogue. We quickly become invested in the character’s lives so that at this “Big Meal” that spans the duration of decades, the jump-cut structure never feels jarring but inevitable (though I did wish that more time could have been spent on the courtship of the young couple before their two kids suddenly arrived on the scene.)
But that is, perhaps, part of the point. The important parts of our lives occur in a flash; the intervals in between only seem to happen slowly. Time, ever fleeting, must be taken to properly prepare and enjoy the “Big Meals” of our lives with the ones we love. The theatrical feast served up by the good folks at The Gamm is sumptuous, satisfying and should not be missed. Beautiful beginnings, in this life of ours, are often left up to chance; endings never are.
“The Big Meal” at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, now through February 9.