On an evening of appearances and disappearances at the opening of Dan LeFranc’s comic drama “The Big Meal” at Artists Rep on Saturday night, one of the biggest disappearances came at the very end, after the final scene, after the cast had taken its bow, as the packed house remained on its collective feet, clapping and clapping and clapping.
Would the actors return for the second curtain call the audience seemed so imploringly to want?
As it turned out, no. What was done was done, and a post-show party waited upstairs. But there was little doubt where this opening-night crowd stood: It had fallen in love with this show. And it wanted the cast and crew to know.
There are two ways to look at opening-night crowds. One is, don’t trust ’em. They’re packed with theater people and company friends, and they’re going to at least make a show of supporting anything they see, whatever they privately think. The other is, pay attention. They’re filled with theater people, and nothing’s more hard-earned than genuine admiration and enthusiasm from people who know the business from the inside out.
In this case, I’m going with Door No. 2. The after-show buzz was the real thing: this was a savvy crowd, and it both admired the theatrical skill it had just witnessed and was emotionally moved by the tale that had unfolded.
“The Big Meal” opens Artists Rep’s season, and it officially opens the Damaso Rodriguez era: the first show of Rodriguez’ first season as artistic director after taking over from Allen Nause, who retired after 25 years at the helm. Like last spring’s “Ten Chimneys,” the first show Rodriguez directed for Artists Rep after being named to lead the company, it’s very much a play about the theater, or at least theatricality. But LeFranc’s script strikes me as much more fluid and better-balanced than Jeffrey Hatcher’s for “Chimneys.” At heart it’s a family drama, combining some of the lighter elements of last season’s delicate production of Aaron Posner’s “And So It Goes” and the more savage thrusts of D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game.” Within the simple trap doors of its interlocking construction, “The Big Meal” covers a lot of territory.
“The Big Meal” takes place over several generations of family gatherings at a variety of restaurant tables, including one in the opening scene in which a young Sam (played initially by Andy Lee-Hillstrom) flirts with a sassy waitress named Nicole (Britt Harris, to begin). It’s a meet-cute situation, with mutual protestations about not wanting a serious relationship and definitely not wanting kids, before the ring pops out (the underpants have already popped off) and the kids pop in. As the generations roll on and the family table grows and contracts – yes, characters sometimes disappear – the actors move neatly in and out of personas, playing children and lovers and parents and in-laws and Sam and Nicole themselves as they age from the dating years to the inevitable caretaking and senility of old age. Nause and Vana O’Brien, who paired so well in “The Gin Game,” play the oldest couple. Val Landrum and newcomer Scott Lowell, a stage and screen vet who’s worked with Rodriguez in southern California, hold down the middle years. Harris and Lee-Hillstrom play the young adults. And child actors Harper Lea and Agatha Olson, two fine performers who absolutely hold their own among this exceptional cast, play all of the kid roles. Gavin Hales, who wanders silently in and out as the restaurant server, delivering the occasional actual meal of pizza or pasta or potatoes, rounds things out and makes it a full baseball lineup.
Watching “The Big Meal” is like flipping through a video-clip library of big family moments: births, deaths, weddings, breakups, bad jokes, booze-fueled declarations, insults and spats, reconciliations, tenderness and loss. Life happens, the story suggests, and death happens, and so it goes, and life goes on. LeFranc acknowledges a debt to Thornton Wilder’s “The Long Christmas Dinner,” a play I don’t know, but “The Big Meal” does have something of a Wilder sensibility. Its flip-book structure is both its most innovative element – it allows the actors to dig into a swiftly flowing series of charged scenes – and its most limiting factor. Even with these truly superb performances and Rodriguez’ assured direction, you can sometimes feel as if you’re watching a parade.
But that’s a limitation, not a weakness. This isn’t “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with its death-rattle of passionate and earth-shattering failures. It’s a rumination on the muddled joys and fragility of life, relying not just on the skills of the actors for its emotional impact but also on the connections it makes with the audiences’ own experiences: Yes, I remember when Aunt Sharon got breast cancer; or, It was hard to watch Dad deal with Alzheimer’s before he died; or, I knew they were too young to get married. In the end, you might remember the actors more than the characters. And you might remember the windows opening into your own memories more than either. That’s all right.
In the meantime, this exceptional cast brings everything vividly and yearningly to life. There’s plenty of laughter, and fair shots of sentiment and romance, but they all point to the bigger, deeper realizations, and the actors leave plenty of memorable images as the evening begins to fade. The veterans Nause and O’Brien are at the top of their considerable games, with moments of searing compassion and regret. Lowell is a slightly haunted everyman, coping with the clipped realizations of middle age. In the end, this is a family. You know ’em, you feel ’em. Love ’em or hate ’em or some inchoate mix of the two, they’re yours. In the extended Sam-and-Nicole clan, you might be stuck with ’em. But you stuck with ’em, too. And that’s an achievement.
Oh. And since the whole thing’s set inside a restaurant, here’s a tip: if the waiter brings you dinner and ignores everyone else at the table, don’t dig right in. You might want to set it aside and just keep on visiting for a little while more.
The West Coast premiere of “The Big Meal” continues through October 6 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Schedule and ticket information is here.