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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Insider Arts: A Rewarding ‘Dining Room’

By Ina B. Chadwick

“The Dining Room,” by A.R. Gurney is currently having a hugely successful run at the Westport Country Playhouse. So much so they had to add another performance for Sunday, May 19 in order to accommodate the ticket requests. The show, which opened on April 30, was to close on May 18.

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Why such popularity after so many previous halting season starts at WCP? Indeed I had to ask myself that question when so many other more interesting plays have been under-attended. What made audiences go, and what enamored the critics enough to talk glowingly? 

“It was profound and poignant,” Westport’s Susan Granger, the revered movie critic said. I agreed it was a “go see,” but “profound?”

Not for me.

The one set that consists of the dining room where 50 years pass is innovative, and evocative. The bones of the table, the mirror, and the chairs are tasteful antiques, but the color is Restoration Hardware, soft grayish mauve. It unifies every one.

Or maybe it’s battleship gray we are looking at? The battles that plague generations of families are often almost identical to the battles of previous generations. Indiscreet affairs, college bound children changing direction and not meeting family expectations, lifelong servants carrying out routines but gaining some backbone against the class struggles, while still conducting themselves as if there was a “downstairs” servant’s quarters.

Homosexuality covered up politely until the family feels sullied by comments at the exclusive country club rouse them to take action in manly fisticuffs. These are the concerns of a pre-Internet world. The poignancy comes in the shifting of power from father to son and onward, mother to daughter and onward from the 1930s to the 1980s.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t relate to this particular dining room, watching the innocence turn into rebellion is part of what’s so touching in this classic play.

The play does have its 1981 calamities that were huge social concerns in what was then an already dying breed; the WASPs whose social rules still had vestiges of Emily Post’s 1939 third release of her tome on etiquette.

“The lady of the house always sits in the same seat in the dining room, and she is allowed to pour coffee if the meal is informal.” Everything else is the maid’s job. Which maid? Depends on how many you had in the 1930s and on.

I was astounded by the levels each actor achieved in a play that has no intermission, and where the six actors, Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socrades, Jennifer Van Dyck, play interchangeable roles that span 50 years of one upper class suburban family.

Fifty-five different characters! (You don’t have to keep track, you’ll know what generation it is from a reference point here or there.) Characters enter the dining room from the room beyond the room; what we can see, yet they cross under three separate arches that frame out a center hall. Once they come in and once they go, they come back the same way, but as other people in the family saga.

The maids come out of the swinging kitchen door. There are no props. Dishes are imaginary, icy drinks crackle in invisible barware. Heavy trays are pantomimed in deftly. I believed it all.

The challenge to keep the audience involved and compassionate with each of the character’s transformations is masterful. It convinced me that with memorable acting, we can be can be convinced that we are listening to a 10-year-old, or 50-year-old. The human condition and the nature of the ties-that-still-bind are what makes this play rewarding.

While we make our way in 2013 through meals with the Kardashian’s vulgarities, and then seek refuge in hours and hours of the fading glory of Downton Abbey’s formalities, it is interesting to compare how our Downton Abbey’s British ancestors informed our WASP culture.

At the end of last season, Downton’s shifts and the breaking down of royal culture and what was proper etiquette illuminate the reality of the first generation of Gurney’s American WASPS.

The first generation father in Gurney’s play says he has “pulled himself up by the bootstraps.” I was not sure if we were dealing with lineage or with the ability to pay for these privileges. One generation of fathers is a psychiatrist.

I am always curious as to where people first got their money. It is often the most telling detail in how they will treat their heirs.

Architecturally, dining rooms go in and out of favor. They’ve gotten smaller here in Fairfield County, if they exist at all. The Great Room is where one generation of the family in Gurney’s play was horrifyingly headed. A renovation that would re-purpose the massive room and eliminate walls, and those that have lived there the longest are aghast. An “open concept” as we call it now.

I applaud Mark Lamos for bringing this play back into our consciousness. We’ve had a year of crisis and modern living in 2013 that many of us would rather forget. Family has pulled us through. Though the characters in “The Dining Room” are all forgettable, what isn’t is the ever-present struggle to hold on to the familiar while not impeding our children’s future.
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WestportNow.com ImageIna Chadwick, who holds nine New England Press Association Awards from the prehistoric days of newspapers, has been producing, and performing, storytelling programs at The Fairfield Museum and History Center, The Bijou Theatre, Westport Arts Center and Two Boots, and now La Rue Elayne will present her new program,“Live Magazine at the Falls,” a variety show featuring storytellers and musicians in the Garrison Keillor tradition. Her radio hour, “Real People, Real Stories,” at www.mousemuse.com can be heard every fourth Saturday on WPKN 89.5 FM and www.wpkin.org streaming live.

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Posted 05/16/13 at 07:35 PM



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