Sarah Wilson, Brenda Robins, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros & Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas
It is the end of civilization as they knew it!
That is what A.R. Gurney, Jr. captures in his wonderful play The Dining Room that is now playing at the Young Centre in a production by Soulpepper.
“They” are those well-off, well-mannered, self-satisfied, sometimes stiff, occasionally humorous WASPs of the north-eastern United States whose way of life, symbolized by the high-minded etiquette around the dining room table has all but disappeared. Gurney sets his play in a dining room where six actors portray 58 characters over a number of decades. They give us an almost anthropological glimpse into the life and mores of a segment of Americana.
Soulpepper’s production is expertly directed by Joseph Ziegler. The six actors who take on all the roles are Brenda Robins, Sarah Wilson, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Diego Matamoros, Derek Boyes and Jeff Lillico.
The play is a godsend for actors. Each of them gets nine or ten roles ranging from children, to young people, to very old men and women. The opportunities for displaying one’s talents are terrific and all of them do so and sometimes in very quick succession.
The play consists of eighteen scenes covering a large number of dinners or encounters in the same dining room. The people range from a real estate agent showing the property to a potential customer, to a children’s birthday party, to an adulterous encounter broken up by the appearance of a son, to a daughter pleading with her father to let her return to her home with her three children. She has a little more than a broken marriage – she is a lesbian but the word is never mentioned.
And there is the bachelor and the suggestion at his club that he may be gay. His brother rises to the occasion and is prepared to defend the gay man’s honour at any cost.
The scenes frequently overlap but the change is made smoothly and almost imperceptibly. There may be eighteen scenes involving different families but the action is continuous and always delightful.
The scenes or sketches provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the upper crust with their servants, their selfishness, their decency and their humanity. Ziegler manages to coordinate and coach the six actors in performing the individual parts but also in being able to switch from one role to the next sometimes in almost no time at all.
The dining room table as a symbol of civilized society no longer holds and, as one character put it, the thought of sitting down with a number of intelligent people to enjoy good food does not occur to people any more.
It may not be the end of civilization but it is certainly a loss to society.
See this wonderful production and judge for yourself, whether or not you are a WASP.
The Dining Room by A.R. Gurney opened on February 12 and will run until March 7, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca