note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Richard Pacheco
“The Big Meal” by Dan Le Franc at the Gamm Theatre sparkles with wonderful performances, deft direction and a terrific set. It starts with the flirting between Nikki a young waitress and Sam and the rest is life and their history together. In many ways it is related to Thornton Wilder’s wonderful “Our Town” and his “The Long Christmas Dinner.” It’s life on speed, rushing through all stages with whirlwind pace, moments compressed and compiled with a keen eye.
As the play progresses it sometimes gets a little hard to figure out who is who since the eight actors play multiple roles. For example in the beginning the young Nikki and Sam played by Amanda Ruggiero and Joe Short. As they grow older those roles are assumed by Steve Kidd and Karen Carpenter and finally as an older couple by Richard Donelly and Wendy Overly.
Despite all the years compressed in the play the velocity is swift and does not dawdle at all. There is not really a plot, more the ups and downs of ordinary life compiled and compressed into 90 minutes. But those 90 minutes are rich with humor and touching moments in abundance.
There are several times when the children are grown when they come back with different romantic partners, played by the same actor or actress with different names and it proves to be funny and sometimes challenging to keep track just as often in our lives it is difficult to keep track of our children’s significant others from time to time.
While by the title it may seem like food predominates the play, it is only used as significant moments in this lifetime adventure, when someone is about to die. Those moments end up touching and heartrending, very real and emotional, leaving an impact.
Richard Donnelly plays the older men in the play, at times being Sam’s father to a daughter’s father in law to an older Sam himself. He sports himself with bold self confidence and bravado as these men. So when he transforms into and old man spoon fed by his wife, Overly, it is powerful and heartbreaking. Wendy Overly is magnificent in her various roles as Sam’s mother to later on becoming Nikki, Sam’s wife when he is feeble and on the verge of death needing to be spoon fed. She delivers richly nuanced performances in all the roles.
Amanda Ruggero and Joe Short play the younger lovers at the beginning of the play, including the children when they get older in the play. They are highly accomplished, delivering the right touches to the sassy flirtations they exchange and the more tender moments. They are very convincing as the other roles as well, truthful and full of energy.
Steve Kidd and Karen Carpenter play the next set of couples in age. They go through a number of trials and transitions, but we never learn what he does for a living or what they really want out of life. Kidd is poised and sincere full of a down to earth dose of humanity that is appealing in its many transmutations. Carpenter is a joy, moving from conflicted wife considering a divorce and split up to mother with her children, either young or older.
Finally, but not least, we get to the two young people who play a variety of children throughout the play, Emeline Easton and Eliot Peters. They are endearing and fun, They deliver sharp performances that were highly enjoyable. Eliot is on the mark when he is particularly obnoxious and petulant teen.
Director Tyler Dobroski , Associate Artistic Director of Trinity Rep, keeps the pacing swift and does not sacrifice the more touching moments, in fact takes the right amount of time with them to leave an impact. The set design by Michael McGarty is simple and efficient, basically a diner or restaurant used throughout the play. It works well
The cast is strong, full of verve and vitality. There is plenty of humor here and also some fine emotional moments which leave an indelible impact that continues to resonate after you have left the theater. There is richness in this face paced look at life. It is well worth seeing.
"The Big Meal" runs through Feb. 9 at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. Tickets are $38-$48. Call (401) 723-4266, or visit gammtheatre.org.