By Caitlin Malone, Cape Cod Times
What a difference an actress can make. At least, that’s the case when that actress is as self-controlled and thoughtful as Sr. Danielle Dwyer is in the Elements Theatre Company’s production of “The Dining Room.”
Granted, A.R. Gurney’s script is worth experiencing for its own sake. Over the course of 18 distinct scenes, only connected to one another by the titular dining room setting, Gurney explores how upper-class traditions like the family meal have evolved, or possibly devolved, over the last century.
The play is constantly changing. Tonally, characters and scenes shift from comedic and lighthearted to morose within seconds, as a scene about the absurd consequences of an insult heard at the club is followed by a scene between a father and son discussing the father’s funeral wishes.
Likewise, varying perspectives between young and old, baby boomer and Gen-Yer determine whether the dark mahogany dining table feels imposing or inviting. This narrative flexibility in Gurney’s script provides an opportunity for his audience to reexamine the dining room that grounds those scenes and determine whether this institution is something we’ve lost or something from which we’ve freed ourselves.
The difficulty that attends such a loosely tied together play that lacks a through-line or stable cast of characters is getting the audience to feel emotionally invested. Gurney’s script is only able to touch on the complex emotional lives of his characters in the few minutes that it presents each character.
Thus, whether the audience does actually connect with the performance is ultimately up to the cast and crew producing the show, and for the most part, this production by the Elements Theatre Company succeeds. The interior design team of Camie Ford, Lara McKendree, Michelle Rich and Anne Swidrak has created a dining room that despite its outdated trappings is warm and appealing. The seven actors who compose the entire cast tackle the more than 50 roles, and they do so with great ease. Brad Lussier follows up his turn as the imposing father determined to preserve the sanctity of the breakfast table with a surprisingly understated performance as a young boy trying to convince the maid not to move out of his house. The cast members clearly care for their characters and are enjoyable to watch.
Yet it is Dwyer, who is also the show’s director, who makes this performance a must see. She gives each of the nine characters she plays their own distinct voices. Even as she dons the airs of the upper-class housewife in more than a few scenes, she finds what makes each of them individual. What could have been a stereotypical scene between a housewife experiencing unexpected sparks with the local handyman inspecting her dining room table is given a more joyful, innocent aura by Dwyer’s playful performance. And this production’s crowning scene, between a mother suffering from dementia and her grown children on Thanksgiving, is given its emotional heft by Dwyer’s turn as the mother. From the tiniest twitch of her eye to her stiff gait, Dwyer plays this part with such painful humanity, and delivers a punch to the gut with her simple yet mournful delivery.
As the director of this performance, Dwyer has assembled a committed and capable cast and crew to bring Gurney’s evocative script to life. As an actress within it, she makes it a memorable experience.