Jan 21, 2018
by Alexa Chipman
PHOTO: Kit Grimm explains his funeral preferences to Len Handeland
‘The Dining Room’ by A.R. Gurney interweaves eighteen vignettes of family life—a daughter standing up for her independence, children prattling about politics with innocent enthusiasm, and a son struggling to accept his father’s passing. Shifting scenes overlap and flow in a collection of short stories, rather than a linear plot. The actors step into a wide range of personalities and ages; director Joey Hoeber keeps the characters clear-cut, avoiding confusion and delayed transitions by relying on the cast, rather than elaborate set or costume adjustments.
Gathering in the dining room for a formal, sit-down meal with strict rules for behavior and awkward conversation has slipped into the past, along with crystal fingerbowls between courses, as pointed out by a young anthropology student in the play itself. Hoeber exaggerates the dated disparity of gender roles into effective parody. Contemporary costumes by Jaime Love with hoodies and cocktail dresses allow a connection with the audience, and ever-present maids are humanized with eccentricities and silent reactions, rather than stoically posed as a backdrop.
Kit Grimm is a delight, becoming a crotchety grandfather railing against boarding schools, eager child unable to understand why his favorite maid is leaving the household, and contemplative father explaining his final wishes to a son fighting to restrain his sorrow. Isabelle Grimm is equally adept as the sarcastic maid Bertha, squealing girl at her birthday party demanding ice cream, and heart-wrenching senile grandmother searching for her gloves to go home, despite already being with her family.
Capturing subtle manipulation hidden behind polite decorum with comedic precision, Rhonda Guaraglia keeps the emotions of her characters simmering beneath the surface, fiddling with wine glasses to hide her anger and holding the tea tray aloft with a knowing, triumphant smirk. Len Handeland, Trevor Hoffmann, and Jill Wagoner are less consistent, but have moments of brilliance. If a scene in ‘The Dining Room’ does not captivate, in a few minutes it will be replaced by a new situation, allowing mediocrity to be quickly forgotten as a compelling story takes the stage to replace it.
Soothing aquamarine wallpaper wraps around Bruce Lackovic’s set design, dominated by a vintage dining room set and solid, old-fashioned china display cabinet. William Ferguson’s lighting design mimics afternoon warmth seeping through the windows and accentuates the focus of scenes, creating dark ambiance for serious discussions and cheerful daylight at breakfast.
This assortment of dining room tales from Sonoma Arts Live is amusing and authentic, a journey back in time to upper-middle-class families with their squabbles and joyful reunions. In a balance of vulnerability and goofy slapstick, ‘The Dining Room’ is an enjoyable evening with six versatile actors.
Photos by Miller Oberlin of Oberlin Photography
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