The Big Meal is the big deal: the moments in life that really matter – birth, love, and death – chopped up into digestible bits and soaked in a vinegar-ish marinade for eighty minutes or so. It is also the big feel, in that its only subject is what we feel in our hearts as we go through these things, and the big for real, in that it is about characters who are relentlessly ordinary, and have no special tools or challenges, except the ones most of us have.
It is, in short, a play about you and me, and our partners. When I lived in Chicago it was in a neighborhood called the Ukrainian Village. The Ukrainian Village was marked by triplexes, each owned by one family for a century or longer. On the top floor would be the young couple, freshly married or with two or three young children; on the main floor would be his parents, or hers, in the fullness of age, authority and prosperity; and the basement flat would be occupied by his or her widowed mom, living out her final years in the bosom of her family. Eventually grandma would shuffle off to God in carpet slippers, and everyone would move down a floor: mom and dad, to comfortable retirement and the basement flat; the young couple, grown into maturity, onto the home on the main floor, and the top floor now occupied by one of their children, and his or her spouse, and their burgeoning family.
So it is in this play with Sam and Nikki, who meet young (Josh Adams and Ashley Faye Dillard), cynical and querulous, falling in love with the greatest reluctance and with the force of gravity, coming into themselves (Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews), living the astounding adventure of being a human family and then giving themselves up to autumn (Matt Dougherty and Annie Houston). Along the way they deal with fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and lovers, all played by Adams, Dillard, Dougherty, Houston, Genebach, Matthews and two excellent child actors, Maya Brettel and Sam O’Brien.
I could tell you what happens in this play, but why should I? It’s what happens in your life. Nobody gets bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires superpowers; nobody becomes the President or a superstar model; when death comes, it is not through swordplay or gunplay or any kind of play, but by the symbolic act of a waitress (Sarah Taurchini) bringing a meal to the character whose time is up.
Playwright Dan LeFranc compresses eighty years into eighty minutes by hammering snippets of scenes together so that, for example, we see at play’s opening Sam, sitting at a restaurant table, asking Nikki, his waitress, for a date; three minutes later we see them out together for the first time, expressing their mutual distaste for a serious relationship; three minutes later we see them at the outset of another date, obviously in a serious relationship, and so on. There is an amusing sequence when their daughter Maddy (Dillard) introduces her parents (now played by Genebach and Matthews) to a series of her beaux (all played by Adams) in the course of a single meal; Sam can’t keep up, and we nearly can’t, either.
While the play covers the better part of a century, it is completely free of any indication that it is set in a time other than the present. When Sam and Nikki first meet, it is not in zoot suits, and they do not listen to the Andrews sisters. When, in their dotage, they go out to eat, they do not arrive in a flying car. They live in the endless now. We do too.
As you’ve doubtlessly concluded, it requires enormous precision and skill to bring something like this off. The characters must flow from one actor to another like souls transmigrating to new bodies. The actors themselves must become different characters, instantaneously. I am pleased to report that director Johanna Gruenhut and her cast bring it off beautifully. It may take a millisecond for the transition to sink in on you, but when it does, you’ll have no trouble buying it the rest of the way.
Justice requires that I cite the cast for its uniform excellence. The veteran Genebach and the astoundingly gifted Matthews anchor the play and give Sam and Nikki their merits and flaws in equal measure; Dillard continues to establish herself as a significant Washington actor; Adams, who appears to have acted mostly on the West Coast, plays three very different characters with great specificity and separation; and Houston’s characters drip with charm – tart as Sam’s mother, and saucy as the older Nikki. I had some difficulty accessing Dougherty’s character at first, but when he reaches the end of Sam’s character arc – which is, I’m sad to say, probably the same as the end of your character arc, and mine – he is perfect.
LeFranc assigns enormous importance to roles which must be filled by child actors, which is frequently a very dicey proposition. Gruenhut, however, has found two gems in Bretell and O’Brien, who are authentic every moment they are on stage, and who have the timing of acrobats. It is hard for kids to act in adult plays because they generally don’t have the life experiences which help them to realistically reproduce the play’s dramatic moments, but Gruenhut has guided these two young people through all of these moments impeccably.
The Big Meal is like a play about eating, or breathing. There are few surprises, but it is enlightening nonetheless, and pleasing and comforting to see people like us living lives like ours, and muddling through.
A play like this could be nonsensical, or sentimental, or both. The Big Meal isn’t, though. It’s great.
The Big Meal
By Dan LeFranc
Directed by Johanna Gruenhut
Produced by Studio Theatre 2ndStage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, without intermission