Feast your eyes on THE DINING ROOM

“The Dining Room” takes place, not surprisingly, in an American dining room, where 6 actors play 57 characters in eighteen scenes taking place both over 80 years’ time and over the course of a single day.

Playwright A.R. Gurney explores the ways in which the upper-crust once used this almost mythical space as a haven from the world outside, while their children and their “help” often felt oppressed by it.

None of the vignettes is connected to the others by anything other than the dining room setting. And there are no familial links between the characters in the various scenes. As one critic put it, “The lynchpin that holds this play together isn’t the stream of characters, who reveal their humanity in scenes both dramatic and comic, it’s the table and chairs. They are the only constant, and their presence is always keenly felt… The room represents not a particular home or family, but a host of such dining rooms peopled by families in varying degrees of stability or disintegration.”

Scenes jump from one era to another, and sometimes the action overlaps, so that before one scene is finished, characters from the next scene enter.

The 1982 Off-Broadway production of “The Dining Room” ran eighteen months, earned Gurney a place as a Pulitzer finalist, and established him as an important American playwright.

Though Gurney did not invent the convention of actors playing multiple roles, one critic noted that he was “certainly influential in introducing the convention that made The Dining Room such fiendishly stylish fun to watch— and still does.”

Gurney’s script notes make it clear that the set should be a well-appointed dining room, set in a sort of limbo, or as if it were a roped-off exhibit in a museum. He also noted that the cast should ideally be six actors, “people of different ages, sizes and shapes as long as they are all good actors,” so they may play characters that are their “type” or completely opposite of their age and looks.

The actors segue from noisy little kids to doddering old folks and every kind of character in between: eye-rolling Valley Girls, a strict, still-wealthy Depression-era father, or a stockbroker-turned-carpenter from the self-actualizing 60s.

Gurney has said that he rewrote portions of dialogue and plot on nights his family attended performances, fearing they might recognize themselves and be upset. As a result, the comedy is one in which the audience can recognize themselves and their families with new insight.

“It is so relatable,” said American Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate Rob Spencer. “Stories of the characters transcend many generations, offering something for everyone.”

Spencer and other actors in the production agree that portraying up to ten characters each over the course of two hours was daunting at first. But now they love it.

“The most challenging aspect is the emotional and mental transformations from one character to the next, sometimes one right after the other,” according to Spencer, who in one scene is a five-year-old at a birthday party and then a very old, very rich grandfather in the scene that follows.

Joellen Hirschey, a graduate of Beaufort High who attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, agreed. “I love the challenge of playing multiple roles,” she said. “It gives me the chance to really focus on my voice work and body movement. I like to take it one character at a time, getting to know her, creating a history for her. I respect and love every one of my characters, and I want to do them all justice.”

Benji Morgan is a music teacher at Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, so he knows a thing or two about the youngsters he plays several times throughout “The Dining Room.” “I love when I get to play a young boy,” Morgan said. “It’s a blast getting in touch with my inner child…I also enjoy my final scene as Standish (an offended blueblood, who must avenge an insult to his brother’s honor at the country club). The scene takes me out of my comfort zone and is helping me grow as an actor.”

Lady’s Island resident Carrie Freeman and her husband Allen loaned the production their gorgeous dining room set. The actress feels “people should come and see this play because I think, especially in today’s world, it puts life in perspective. It helps us see the important things. The show isn’t just about a dining room; it’s about so much more.”

 

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