Two appetizingly notable stage plays, both currently running in the North Bay, feature the unpredictable combustible power of people related to one another, or about to be, sitting down to eat dinner together. Yes, the family dinner. What has been lauded and celebrated as the linchpin of the American family, appears on two local stages, not necessarily as the glue that holds people together, but as the launching pad that, at many moment, could blow everything apart.
Marin Theatre Company’s August Osage County, directed by Jasson Minadakis, is a solid, well-performed, but oddly distant, and strangely unsatisfying staging of the 2008 Pulitzer winner from Tracy Letts. At the center of the play is a family dinner that starts off friendly and ends in chaos.
Usually presented with detailed realism, this is a deliberately surreal production that emphasizes the family-meal elements of the script by building a massive tabletop structure into the stark, skeletal bleacher-like set. Though worth checking out for the ugly beauty of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning script, there’s something off-the-mark about the production, which seems to have missed the point of the play, but at least misses it in an interesting way.
With a magnificent lead performance by Sherman Fracher as Violet Westin, the ferocious pill-popping matriarch of an Oklahoma clan gathering together after the disappearance of their paterfamilias dad, the play is solidly acted by a strong cast of thirteen. Minadakis’ choice to have the actors pantomime some props is interesting, placing metaphorical emphasis on those props (pills, pot, cigarettes, alcohol) that are real. But in attempting to turn Letts’ meticulously realistic play into a tone poem about the addictiveness of casual family cruelty, this admirable but unsuccessful production blunts the razor-sharp edges of the playwright’s brilliantly brutal storytelling.
Inaugurating Left Edge Theater’s brand-new 60-seat performance space at Luther Burbank Center. Director Argo Thompson serves up Dan LeFranc’s high-concept play The Big Meal covering four generations in the life of a typical American family, as told through a series of short (sometimes very short) vignettes, all presented by a character-shifting cast of eight actors, each and every scene set … in a restaurant.
The ensemble show features a superb 9-performer cast that includes Sonoma County veteran actors Kimberly Kalember and Joe Winkler (Man #1), along with Sandra Ish, Graham Narwhal, Liz Frederick, and Jacob de Heer.
All are excellent, playing sweeping arcs of love and loss in a show that is as ambitious in its scope and as it is, unfortunately, a bit lacking in any real payoff or point. Not that life has a payoff or point, of course, which apparently, is part of the point of ‘The Big Meal.’ That said, the combined pleasure of seeing so much good acting one stage, in a story about learning to savor life as long as we can, makes this uniquely-told story well worth pulling up a chair for.
‘The Big Meal runs Friday–Sunday through September 25 at Left Edge Theater. Leftedgetheater.com
‘August Osage County’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through October 2 at Marin Theatre Company. Marintheater.org