Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre serves up Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal as the opening course of its second season at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. It’s also the inaugural show in their new Studio Theatre, a modern, intimate 60 seat space that lends itself well to the style of theatre preferred by Left Edge Artistic Director Argo Thompson.
“…Meal” is a fast-paced (it has to be; it covers 80 years in 90 minutes) journey through the life of a couple as seen through a series of vignettes which are all set in restaurants. The play opens with diner Sam (Jacob de Heer) meeting waitress Nicole (Liz Frederick) and within the first couple of minutes has them dating, married, and becoming parents. All of life’s milestones are hit – first dates, courtships, weddings, dealing with parents and in-laws, parenthood, infidelities, familial separation and, ultimately, death and loss – all within the context of a restaurant meal.
The scenes vary from boisterously funny to the heartfelt and poignant and director Thompson has gathered an excellent multi-generational cast to present them well. Each actor (with the exception of Saskia Baur, who plays the waitress in all the scenes) takes on multiple roles, playing various members (and generations) of the family or their friends. For example, actor Jacob de Heer begins with the character Sam, then plays Sam’s son, then plays Sam’s sister Maddie’s boyfriends, then plays Sam’s sister Maddie’s son.
Follow that? It’s not as confusing as it sounds, and while some shows written in this style often require a roadmap, it’s actually quite simple to follow on stage. Costuming assists in this, but it’s really the performers’ strong characterizations that makes this clear. Joining the aforementioned de Heer, Frederick, and Baur are Kimberly Kalember, Joe Winkler, Sandra Ish, Graham Narwhall, Maia Thompson and Theo Marvin. All are very effective, from youngsters Thompson and Marvin’s infuriatingly accurate depiction of battling siblings to Winkler’s moving interpretation of the ravaging effects of time. There are some very funny moments as well, with de Heer’s portrayal of a series of boyfriends (mostly accomplished with a quick change of hats) a hilarious highlight of the evening.
LeFranc is not the first playwright to cook up such a show (see Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner or A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room) but it’s a case where the individual ingredients (the actors) are superior to the finished product (the script). Don’t get me wrong, the play has its moments, both humorous and moving, and is well worth seeing, but for all of the sound and fury generated at the dinner table, by the play’s end what did it signify? Maybe nothing. Or maybe LeFranc is relying on the audience members to reflect and react more to their own personal recollections and connections to what’s going on in front of them. I was certainly flashing back to a few moments in my own life that had (sometimes uncomfortable) parallels. The large family dinner outings that devolve into big family arguments where everybody talks/yells at the same time were both funny and painful to watch. My problem with that is in those moments it became more about me and less about the characters and, ultimately, the play. Which is a bit of a shame because the characters and the play are exceptionally well served by director Thompson and his company. It’s a sizzling cast working with a somewhat undercooked script.
Left Edge Theatre’s The Big Meal is theatrical comfort food – recognizable, tasty, filling, somewhat lacking in nutritional value – but what it lacks in depth is more than made up for by presentation. If you hunger for good acting, you’ll leave more than satiated.
The Big Meal
Presented by Left Edge Theatre
through September 25
Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Left Edge Studio Theatre
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
50 Mark West Springs Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Photos courtesy of Left Edge Theatre