Written by John Watters, Barnstable Patriot
A.R. Gurney’s play The Dining Room is a story of the culture of that pedigreed demographic, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Swimming in waters that they are quite familiar with, the talented Elements Theater ensemble makes a splash with Gurney’s “comedy of manners” with more than 50 characters playing out 18 scenes in the two-act play.
Dining Room opened on Broadway in 1981 and since then it has been the darling of theater groups of all levels. That’s partially because it’s a one-room set, and secondly because it gives actors plenty of opportunity to work their craft, albeit a narrow window which offers glimpses of what is lately becoming a dying breed, America’s upper-middle class. Gurney himself is a product of that cohort. Raised in the golden era of Buffalo, N.Y. in its industrial heyday, he was schooled at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Williams College, and Yale School of Drama, ending up teaching humanities at MIT before gaining enough success with his playwriting to make that his fulltime profession. His other works include Love Letters, Sylvia, The Cocktail Hour, and Indian Blood.
The Dining Room lets the audience in on the inner machinations of 18 families that own the home in which the stately dining room and its elegant appointments have sat for close to 80 years. The concept is that this room, in which families have come together to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in everyday settings and celebrate special occasions and holidays, is essentially the epicenter through good times and bad, proud moments and awkward ones. It is a play about humanity, which is Gurney’s specialty.
Director Sr. Danielle Dwyer has once again rounded up the usual suspects that make up The Elements Theater Company, the theatrical arm of Gloriae Dei Artes Foundation of the Community of Jesus. Rachel McKendree, Kate Shannon, Chris Kanaga, Luke Norman, Brad Lussier, Peter Haig and Dwyer herself portray Gurney’s characters that range in age from young children to the very old. Each of the talented players make each personae change seamless; all easily banter the witty dialog back and forth like a shuttlecock in a badminton game.
Many of the highlights of this Elements production come with the players who play children. In the scene called “Eat Together,” Sr. Dwyer and Brad Lussier as the mother and father, with Kate Shannon and Peter Haig as their children, show the age battle of table manners and children being seen and not heard.
Also delightful is the scene called Winkie’s Birthday” in which the young friends of Winkie (Kate Shannon) are portrayed by McKendree, Kanaga, Norman, and Haig. The adult actors capture the childlike qualities of voice and body language of their young characters with aplomb.
The final scene, in which the room is decorated in a formal dining format with all coming together to cheer each other’s lives and accomplishments, is also well done.
The dining room set designed by Steve Minster and Peter Shannon is beautifully rendered, and in the close confines of the company’s theater the audience gets the feel of being on the stage with the actors.
For those who love Gurney, this Elements production is a must see; for those who aren’t as familiar with his work, one couldn’t do better to get a taste of his work.