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Play review: Engrossing ‘Dining Room’ is a look back at bygone eras … |

Play review: Engrossing ‘Dining Room’ is a look back at bygone eras …

Big Dawg Productions stages A.R. Gurney’s 1982 play at the Cape Fear Playhouse through Nov. 19.

A play about changing times and about change itself, A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” is set in multiple bygone eras but manages to have something to say about our own. That’s because the well-drawn characters in the 1982 play don’t feel that different from people we know today. They just happen to live in decades before cell phones.

A lively, moving production of “The Dining Room” is currently running at the Cape Fear Playhouse and, under the direction of Tesia Childs for Big Dawg Productions, an impressive six-person cast effortlessly flows between characters and generations like a lucid dream. It’s also a reminder that Gurney, who died earlier this year, is an underrated American dramatist capable of telling compelling stories in non-traditional ways. “Love Letters,” for example, is one of the most engrossing staged readings ever written, and in “Sylvia,” one of the main characters is a talking dog.

“The Dining Room,” which focuses on the fading world of upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the Northeast, is a memory play without a narrator that navigates between characters unrelated but for having grown up in similar ways. We never leave the same large dining room with six chairs and a hutch, and set designer Scott Davis uses the same thrust-style approach that worked so well for “Twelve Angry Men” earlier this year.

“I grew up in a dining room like this,” several characters remark, a room that was used for daily breakfasts and dinners as well as more formal occasions. Gurney uses that room, and its declining importance, to comment on how American society has changed for better and worse.

The play takes us from a time when servants meticulously prepared poached eggs to more casual days when cereal and Pop Tarts will suffice. We get the points of view of those servants, who upper-middle-class families could actually afford a century ago, and who understandably left for freer pastures as soon as they could afford it. We witness mother-daughter arguments over changing cultural norms and a grandson awkwardly asking his recalcitrant grandfather to pay to send him to a (gasp!) Catholic prep school.

We see how under wraps kids used to be, having to ask permission to even enter the room to have breakfast with their father, only to be endlessly corrected. Small wonder those kids grew up craving more freedom and flexibility, and not just during mealtime.

The cast does an excellent job of distinguishing between more than 50 characters, from little kids to old folks, and the three actresses and three actors all find times to stand out. Just to scratch the surface, Jay Zadeh hits all the right notes as both a hectoring, straight-laced father and a child needful of his Irish nanny’s attention. Beth Corvino plays a liquor-mixing teen with breezy, dismissive aplomb (her assessment of dinner in the dining room: “No one can start until everything’s cold, it sucks out loud”) as well as a woman proud and protective of her family’s dinnerware. Josh Bailey shines as a table repairman with more than carpentry on his mind and as a scotch-drinking patriarch aghast at his daughter’s complicated romantic life.

Randy Davis is fantastic as an architect whose plan to structurally obliterate the dining room brings back nostalgic memories and, as a child whose father has a roving eye, he says more in a glance than he could in 10 lines. Vanessa Welch skillfully depicts the physicality and confused politeness of an old woman whose memory has faded, and she evokes some emotion as that Irish nanny. Emily Gomez is fully believable as a teenage girl pushing back against her mother’s influence, and she helps bring the play to a resonant close when she tells a departing servant, “We’ll never manage again like this.”

Director Childs plays up Gurney’s at-times flippant tone with creative music choices — the theme from “The Young and Restless” to accent a scene between two characters carrying on an affair, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” for a scene between that table repairman and a divorcee. It’s certainly never dull, and if the play is often critical of an outdated world it also humanizes the people who lived in it.

It’s flabbergasting to realize that since “The Dining Room” was first performed in 1982 the societal changes it depicts have settled into our culture as our way of life has transformed nearly completely yet again. If there’s a temporary respite for the constancy of change it’s the ability to look back and see where it came from, a wistful luxury the “The Dining Room” delivers.

Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or

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