Zebra Crossing Theatre

What I remember from childhood is eating. A healthy preoccupation with consuming food. My family may have had its troubles from time to time, but when we sat down to meals, people ate. Voices were sometimes raised, but food was still passed around and swallowed with a passion, if only to fuel the next stage of debate.

In contrast, the characters in A.R. Gurney Jr.’s The Dining Room hardly ever seem to touch sustenance. Their disturbances take many forms–extramarital affairs, adolescent rebellion, failure to communicate–and ultimately seem to spring from the slow dissolution of their world. This is the aristocratic world of the American WASP, once filled with debutante balls, riding lessons, country club socials, and chauffeurs driving children to school. Common enough, no?

Actually, yes. Beyond the unusual trappings of WASP life, Gurney’s compelling stories of struggling families reminded me of my own life, except that these folks didn’t eat much. His narrative line swings back and forth among a number of families and generations, covering perhaps the half century between the 1930s and the present. The play is written as a series of vignettes, and without blackouts. At times, characters from different eras appear together onstage, though they are unaware of each other.

The dining room and its large table unify the generations. For an established businessman (Dan Cooney), apparently prosperous even in the face of the Depression, the dining room serves as a sort of inner sanctum (he and his wife are “thinking” of allowing their children to share dinner with them there); while, for a woman (Doris Craig) in a different time, serving tea to her new lover in the dining room, “instead of huddling guiltily in the kitchen,” is an act of defiance, a shattering of the domestic role imposed on her.

It’s odd to think of a dining room and table as characters with personalities, but their effect on the human characters is that strong. In one contemporary scene, for example, an architect (Consuelo Allen) shows the house to a psychiatrist (Donn Harper). When they come to the dining room, she says she’s worried about heat loss. “It’s a fine room, a big room, a commodious room, which is why you should break it up.” He hesitates, saying “the room has such resonance.” After a few questions, she begins to tell him, much as a patient would, of the images that continue to haunt her from her own childhood spent in such a dining room. “I remember once coming to the table without washing my hands,” she says in horror.

Each new character (and there are something like 50 of them, distinctly portrayed by six actors) carries some vestige of a dining room, a remnant of past family life. The dining room is a durable and profound image. Yet we learn that our images of home can be greatly distorted: a carpenter hired by modern-day Margery (Craig) tells her that the dining room table everyone assumed was a valuable antique is well built but hardly rare. Apparently, hundreds of tables like it were manufactured at the turn of the century. Yet to the many families in this play it is an emblem of distinction and importance.

Gurney suggests that custom has taken the place of conversation and eating in these genteel families. One memorable scene has young Tony (Cooney) photographing his old Aunt Harriet (Laurie Martinez), who is demonstrating the old rituals of table setting–the finger bowls and the like. She believes that Tony is engaged in an important education project–perhaps somebody actually wants to relive her treasured customs–and is outraged at learning that his work is for an anthropological project on the eating habits of vanishing cultures. There is such a rift in these families that the different generations cannot understand each other.

For all its humor, the play left me with a haunting image of the nuclear family replaced by a circle of acquainted strangers. A woman (Martinez) tells her husband (Harper) about her recurrent dream, in which they host a party in their dining room and invite “everybody we know and like.” “Do you know how much a party like that would cost?” he asks. “I know,” the woman replies, “but sometimes I think it would be worth it.” The guests who fill her dream are not family, not even close friends, but the mechanic who fixes their Toyota, a local bank teller, and the receptionist at the doctor’s office.

This suggestion of family members ultimately abandoning each other for the safety of strangers is enhanced in the vivid Zebra Crossing production by Adriana Larios’s design of the table–it’s a large wooden table with a gaping, jagged, missing corner that no one notices. Patrick Trettenero’s direction is graceful and well paced, and the entire cast performs ably. The performances of Doris Craig, Laurie Harper, and Consuelo Allen are particularly notable in the subtlety with which they convey and the ease with which they move among their many characters.