The plight of the vanishing New England WASP is the subject matter of A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, running now at Sonoma Arts Live. No, it’s not a science lecture on the more annoying cousin of the honeybee but a look at the cultural transformation of a specific component of 20th century America – the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Gurney, whose other works include Love Letters and Sylvia, uses 18 vignettes and about 50 characters to chart the rise and decline of upper middle-class America. The scenes all occur in the titular location around a stately dining table. The table, which was once the center point of family life and special occasions, in time has been reduced to a place on which to fold laundry.
Wafting through the room over its two-hour running time are generations of unrelated characters, ages four to ninety, all played by a company of six talented actors – Isabelle Grimm, Kit Grimm, Rhonda Guaraglia, Len Handeland, Trevor Hoffman, and Jill K. Wagoner. One actor goes from playing a stern, turn-of-the-century father lecturing his son on manners to a young boy begging the family servant not to leave her job. Another goes from playing a real estate agent eager to make a sale to a young girl pleading to go to the movies instead of dance lessons.
Scenes overlap and intertwine with characters from one era occupying the space at the same time as characters from another era. There are no blackouts as the action is continuous and the actors simply glide in and out of the room. This led to some confusion with a few audience members, so much so that were a few more empty seats post-intermission. It’s really not that confusing one you acclimate yourself to the style and buy into the premise of veteran performers playing children. Where else will you get the chance to see Kit Grimm bouncing around the stage like a four-year old pretending to be a monkey?
The scenes range from the poignant to the humorous with the most effective being a conversation between an ailing father and his son about funeral plans and a laugh-out-loud segment between an aunt and her nephew about a college photography project.
The action all takes place on the single dining room set, nicely designed and appointed by Bruce Lackovic. William Ferguson has added some effective lighting elements as well.
Director Joey Hoeber keeps his cast in check and despite the range in characters the show never veers into the cartoonish. If you don’t enter the theatre expecting a traditional linear narrative, you’ll find yourself enjoying a well-acted, acute observation of a slice of by-gone American life.
‘The Dining Room’ runs through February 4 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center in Sonoma. Thursday through Saturday evening performances at 7:30pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm.
For more information, go to sonomaartslive.org.