By Suzi Steffen
I’m not sure anything could show the way some of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal feels better than a tweet that ran through my feed today:
As the tweet says, that cartoon is savage in its depiction of life for parents. Not that the The Big Meal rises to the level of savage, exactly; more that the play’s audience knows the deep truth that couples in early love (and sexual attraction) behave differently than couples with children.
Much of The Big Meal, playing at Oregon Contemporary Theatre through Nov. 12, relies on its audience’s familiarity with certain tropes of family life, certain reactions, certain socializations. This is a strength: Many people in the audience will identify with one character or another – the excited young people who don’t want relationships, the couple who argue over their kids and their parents; the older couple trying to deal with their kids and their kids’ partners.
This is where the script falls down, too: Tired gender and racial characterizations might make the family in the play “everyone’s family,” as much advertising for this play in various places across the country claims, but only if that “everyone” is white and straight and stuck in certain formulae of what “family” means.
The play moves quickly, establishing a relationship between Sam (Joshua Cummins) and Nicole (Jerilyn Armstrong) within the first minute or so. And within five minutes, they’ve gotten together, had an anniversary … and broken up. Director Brian Haimbach talked about having his actors think about changing the shapes of their spines, for instance, within the lightning-fast time shifts, so that it’s clear something new has happened, and these two young actors perform that very well (hey, 20-something spines!).
Sam and Nicole apparently stay apart for long enough to transform into thirty-or-forty-somethings. Russell Dyball and Kari Boldon Welch play the couple as they re-find each other, swear they don’t want kids, and, very quickly, end up carrying their kids – played ably by Noa Ablow Measelle and Hugh Brinkley – to the tables that sit at the front of the stage.
The conceit is fun and, in a way, funny; the actors all get to play a character and that character’s child or grandchild (or aunt, uncle, parent, grandparent) as the play, and time, goes on. The audience gets to see Nicole’s rejection of propriety – Welch’s “not wearing underwear” scene rightfully brings down the house – become her daughter’s unwillingness to settle down with any one person (both of those young roles played by Jerilyn Armstrong). Then there’s the daughter, played as a middle-aged woman by Welch, having a hard time with her own son, played by Cummins … and so forth.
It makes sense when you’re at the play. These time shifts allow every actor (except the waiter, played with marvelous hauteur but near invisibility – and in role that is a meta-commentary on stage managers and props people – by Taylor Freeman) to perform multiple roles.
What is “the big meal” of the title? About 20 minutes into the 90-minute no-intermission play, it becomes clear that you would not want to be the character eating on stage. The discomfort of that moment is physical and emotional. Many of the actors must perform that uncomfortable action at points throughout the play. The spotlight falls; everyone else is silent; the audience is silent. The only sound is of the actor/character scraping a bowl or plate, eating, and leaving the stage.
At various points, the audience will also hear and see other audience members crying during these times. Haimbach said in an edited-out portion of our Q&A, “The characters are vulnerable, and the audience is vulnerable too” – and that is deeply true.
The play somehow packs in five generations surrounding Sam and Nicole. Early on, Sam’s parents, played by Robert Hirsh and Ellen Chace, show up. Hirsh returns as the father of the bride when Sam and Nicole’s son gets married, and then, inevitably, he becomes Sam himself. Of the four adult characters in the play, Hirsh is the best at distinguishing his separate characters, partly because of the script but mostly because of his different ways of carrying himself. That’s not to say the others aren’t strong as their various characters – they are. But their character changes aren’t as clear, which can be a little confusing.
Again, however, that might be part of LeFranc’s point: Families pass on traits they don’t even know they’re passing on, and the audience gets to see that because of the speed of this highlight reel of a play.
The least convincing portions come about because of the script. How do we feel about Madeleine, Nicole and Sam’s daughter, when she’s an adult? Heck, we hardly have any time to find out before she is dealing with a big meal. And then her son, Sammy, played by Cummins, makes the least convincing speech of the evening before cramming down his own meal. That’s not due to Cummins, who’s just fine as Sammy; this portion of the script’s narrative arc is weak, one might even say lazy, and emotionally manipulative in a creaky way.
Gradually – and partly through attrition – it becomes clear that the emotional center of the play is Ellen Chace. Whether she’s playing Sam’s mother or the older Nicole, it’s her face that draws our attention during those silent scenes.
When she plays Sam’s alcohol-enjoying mother, taking photos with her digital camera and dispensing words of wisdom to her grandchildren, she serves up more dignity than perhaps the character possesses, but she also gets to have fun – and to deliver a monologue that simultaneously is cringe-inducing, devastating, and indicative of her character’s foibles.
Then she’s Nicole, and we watch her heart get broken several times in succession until she’s alone on stage. Chace and Hirsh’s final scene is probably the finest of the play, and they both earn the reactions of the audience.
If the play is a dramedy, the comedy portion is mostly over by this point. Though Welch and Brinkley between them make their short bit in their final scene with Chace amusing, the script makes their characters’ humor all the more painful.
Should you go see this play? Probably, if you have parents or children or grandparents, or if you like plays about nuclear families, or if you’ve ever been at a big talky holiday party. Do know that it hits approximately every emotional trigger for families, aside from car accidents or drug addiction. The actors, including the children, do good work; the direction is strong; the set, by Steen Mitchell, works excellently; lighting and sound combine to support and very occasionally highlight the action, such as it is.
We’re all eating the big meal at some point; might as well enjoy a nice evening of theater along the way.
The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 12; 2 pm Sunday Oct. 30 & Nov. 6
Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway (parking suggestions here)
Tickets $15 for students with current ID; $18-31 for the rest of us
541-465-1506; at the website; box office hours here