Addison — The marketing description of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, now at WaterTower Theatre, makes it sound like a heartwarming depiction of a typical American family, or “an extraordinary tale of five generations of an ordinary family.” Sounds like it could slip into the “feel-good, slam-dunk-hit” slot of a repertory theater’s season.
Go in thinking that and you’ll surprised. And if you’re like me, pleasantly so.
Everything in the description is true, but especially take heed of the “theatrically inventive” descriptor. This is the kind of show theater-lovers hope to catch at a theater in which the subscription series is dominated, if not completely full of, narrative plays with traditional structures. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s always good to mix things up, which is something I haven’t seen much in WaterTower’s recent seasons. Kudos to the producers for not programming The Big Meal on the Studio Series, which is where more adventurous shows often end up.
The Big Meal begins—think of it as the appetizer—with two twentysomething characters, Sam and Nicole (played by Garret Storms and Kia Nicole), meeting at a nondescript, Midwestern chain restaurant where she works and he is a flirty customer. He wants a date; she doesn’t want to commit to anything more than a night of fun. Soon, it’s apparent that, with a subtle light change, Sam and Nicole have gotten to know each other more. Throughout this first scene, in a series of short “shifts” as LeFranc calls them, we see their relationship quickly advancing forward.
Then we meet two actors in their 40’s (Jakie Cabe and Sherry Hopkins), parents to characters we just met. And later, a boy and a girl (Alex Duva and Kennedy Waterman), who are offspring. Then, an older pair, played by John S. Davies and Lois Sonnier Hart—grandparents and great-grandparents. And then, with the play’s most ingenious device, the lights focus on one character, doing one action as the others watch silently.
Big shift. Next thing we know, the fortysomething actors are now in the roles played by the twentysomethings in the previous scene, and so on. It’s the same family over five generations, and the same eight actors, each playing these characters at different ages, with minimal physical changes, perhaps in posture or hair choices.
In his stage directions, LeFranc warns that the shifts and “passing” of characters through different actors should be in the moment without overdone theatrics, and it’s ok if the audience is a little behind in figuring it all out. Trust, that will happen at first.
That moment when you “get it” is one of those little pleasures that induces excitement about live theater.
Director Emily Scott Banks and the designers (Darren Diggle, scenic; Dan Schoedel, lights; Kellen Voss, sound; Sylvia Fuhrken, costumes) follow the author’s directions to keep things simple and fast-moving, and most importantly, easy to follow. The few slow and silent moments are powerful. The only question is why Banks chooses not to go with LeFranc’s suggestion that all actors should be onstage for the entire play, even as they’re removed from the action and observing it when not in a scene. In WaterTower’s production, they exit and enter too much, which feels odd given the amount of tables and chairs on Diggle’s island of a stage for the playing area, in the runway configuration for this production.
Casting is tricky, with the actors ages more important than how they look as a family. Cabe and Hopkins are especially successful with the cross-talk when there is more than one generation of characters on stage. They all move and talk with the brisk rhythm that Banks and LeFranc set for them. Duva and especially Waterman, who are both stage veterans at Fun House Theatre and Film, are fantastic; as are Hart and Davies, who each have moments that devastate the audience.
Impressively, The Big Meal never comes off as a gimmick. It reminds of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner, which spans 90 years and is set at the dinner table. Or, in a much less epic and absurd way, his The Skin of Our Teeth, which follows the Antrobus family through human history. Or we could go to Wilder’s most famous work, Our Town. Like that masterpiece, The Big Meal uses minimal sets and props and tells a simple story through everyday conversations and interactions—and has something quietly profound to say about that final exit we all must make.
The Big Meal is subversively bold, and one of WaterTower's best productions in years.