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Studio Theatre 2nd Stage The Big Meal

By • May 11th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
The Big Meal
Studio Theatre 2nd Stage
Studio Theatre, Washington DC
Through May 20th
80 minutes
$30-$35 + fees
Reviewed May 9th, 2012

Food has brought cultures together for centuries, and we Americans seem to be united in our adoration of chain restaurants. After having spent over a year in the restaurant business myself, I have experienced firsthand what an awkwardly intimate environment a restaurant can be — both public and personal at the same time. You try to innocuously sip your cocktail or chew your crudit├ęs while the couple to your left is all over each other and the frazzled parents to your right are desperately trying to control their rambunctious brood. It’s a cultural miasma into which we seem inexorably drawn, yet we keep going back for those little slices of Americana.

When I first heard the premise of The Big Meal, I expected a lighthearted linear comedy about a large family publicly airing their grievances while ordering too much food and inducing migraines in the wait staff. When I saw Studio Theatre 2nd Stage’s production of Dan LeFranc’s dark comedy, what I got was a rapturously engaging inquiry into the nature of the contemporary American family. Eight actors of varying ages portray five generations of a family as they struggle with children, relationships, disease, and life in general — all within the milieu of an increasingly sinister chain restaurant in Smalltown, USA.

The play begins with a series of dates blossoming into a relationship between a Young Woman (Ashley Faye Dillard) and a Young Man (Josh Adams). The rapid-fire pace and the idiosyncratic rhythm were a little jarring at first but after I got used to it, I realized that this was the perfect way to present these vignettes. It let the audience know that this play would be an album of snapshots detailing this family’s ups and downs. From there, the characters grow up into a Man (Chris Genebach) and a Woman (Hyla Matthews) and navigate through the social constructs of marriage and children, all under the watchful eyes of an Older Woman (Annie Houston) and an Older Man (Matt Dougherty). Rounding out the cast are a Boy (Sam O’Brien) and a Girl (Maya Brettell) and a silent waitress (Sarah Taurchini) running the show and providing beautiful dark symbolism (I’d say more, but then I’d spoil one of the elements that I liked most). As each of the characters ages, their mantle is taken up by the older actors as the younger actors instantly transform into various children, cousins, friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends of the family to continue the cycle.

It seemed to me that Director Johanna Gruenhut did not direct a play as much as she conducted a symphony. Every segue and transformation was executed seamlessly with Ms. Gruenhut carefully orchestrating the emotional highs and lows. The cacophony of the entire family yelling at each other across the table juxtaposed with extended periods of utter silence were pure poetry. Certain props and a few subtle theatrical gestures (a pair of glasses, a necklace, a pattern of drumming on the table, etc.) were passed on from generation to generation as though they were heirlooms. These tiny details told so many stories in a way that only works in live theatre — it was electrifying to watch.

Ms. Gruenhut has assembled a multi-generational cast whose bond is immediately palpable. It is one thing to play a family, it is quite another for these actors to love each other in so many different ways and create one cohesive synergy that remains constant even as the characters change. Every member of the cast was incredibly talented, and it was astonishing to me how well they communicated and played off of each others’ strengths — particularly in how they approached playing older versions of the characters already firmly established by the younger actors. Ms. Dillard was delightful as she set the quirky rhythm of the show, and her complete emotional breakdown in the middle of the show was one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve seen in years — especially because the tone shifted so abruptly. Mr. Genebach’s comic timing was nothing short of brilliant and his honesty in the darker moments was haunting. Mr. Dougherty was also a standout. His transitions were the most profound of the group, and his depiction of disease-induced mental degeneration was stunningly graceful and poignant. Sam O’Brien and Maya Brettell impressively held their own amongst well-seasoned performers; I can see a bright future onstage for both. I’ve always said that my favorite thing in the world is to watch talented artists of any kind who truly love their art playing in their element — that is exactly what I got from the director and all nine cast members.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s elegantly simple set design created the ideal ethereal restaurant space. The movable tables and chairs, as well as the long upstage booth for inactive performers, served not only the story but the rhythm and tempo of this particular production. Adriana Diaz’ nicely balanced costumes are non-descript enough to serve the fluidity of the show, yet vibrant enough to clearly illustrate the character changes. Ms. Diaz is assisted by Rebecca DeLapp. John Burkland’s subtle and intimate lighting design alluringly set all the appropriate moods and helped clearly define the changes in time and physical space. Perhaps the most striking technical element is the amazing sound design by Elisheba Ittoop. Crowd noises, original music, white noise, and complete silence aurally illustrate the metaphysical world of this show and ground it in glorious reality.

Studio Theatre 2nd Stage, Ms. Gruenhut, and her cast and crew have put together a scintillatingly nuanced, expertly balanced, and thoroughly entertaining production that holds up a mirror to the best and worst of our families. This show runs a refreshing 80 minutes with no intermission and runs through May 20. While I highly recommend this show for adults, it’s probably best not to bring the little ones because of adult themes and language (never mind the two very talented kids in the show itself!). Once you attune yourself to the unusual rhythm of this show (it only takes a few moments), you will find yourself completely enamored with the unique blend of pathos and humor that make The Big Meal at Studio Theatre an immensely satisfying and wonderful evening of theatre.

Photo Gallery

Ashley Faye Dillard and Josh Adams Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews
Ashley Faye Dillard and Josh Adams
Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews
Matt Dougherty, Sam O'Brien, Matt Dougherty, Sam O'Brien,
Matt Dougherty, Sam O’Brien,
Matt Dougherty, Sam O’Brien,
Annie Houston and Matt Dougherty
Annie Houston and Matt Dougherty

Photos by Carol Pratt

Cast

  • Girl: Maya Brettell
  • Boy: Sam O’Brien
  • Young Woman: Ashley Faye Dillard
  • Young Man: Josh Adams
  • Woman: Hyla Matthews
  • Man: Chris Genebach*
  • Older Woman: Annie Houston
  • Older Man: Matt Dougherty
  • The Server: Sarah Taurchini

Designers/Crew

  • Director: Johanna Gruenhut
  • Set Design: Timothy R. Mackabee
  • Lighting Design: John Burkland
  • Sound Design/Original Music: Elisheba Ittoop
  • Costume Design: Adriana Diaz
  • Production Technical Director: Charlie Olson
  • Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen
  • Assistant Director: Brian Crane
  • Assistant Costume Design: Rebecca DeLapp
  • Stage Manager/Sound Board Operator: Hope Villanueva
  • Floor Manager: Ryan Breen
  • Light Board Operator: Kara Sparling

Disclaimer: The Studio Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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, a native of Frederick, MD, has been heavily involved in every single facet of theatre for the majority of his life. He has been seen on stages in Frederick, Charles Town, WV, Kensington, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Gettysburg, PA, and many others. A two-time WATCH Award nominee, Eric has over 80 shows to his credit and is a double-graduate of Frederick County's Arts and Communications Academy in music and theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Frederick.

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