Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


The Dining Room
Sonoma Arts Live
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of Honky Tonk Angels and Patrick's reviews of The Birthday Party, and Man of La Mancha


Kit Grimm, Jill Wagoner, Trevor Hoffmann,
Isabelle Grimm, Rhonda Guaraglia,
and Len Handelman

Photo by Miller Oberlin
A. R. Gurney is perhaps best known for his plays The Cocktail Hour and Pulitzer-nominated Love Letters, but The Dining Room deserves its own revered place in the canon of American plays. A fond tribute to vanishing traditions, Gurney's work also reminds us of important values worth cherishing. The production by Sonoma Arts Live scores a win with its tender, amusing and charming rendition of the play.

The Dining Room unfolds in a series of 18 short scenes, their relationship to each other left to the viewer to decide. Resembling a collection of short stories, the play mines the minutiae of upper middle-class family life from early 20th century to (perhaps) the present. All action takes place in a single room, an upscale, traditional American dining room, anchored by a classic table with six chairs. Six actors—Isabelle Grimm, Kit Grimm, Rhonda Guaraglia, Len Handeland, Trevor Hoffmann, and Jill K. Wagoner—each play multiple roles to portray different ages and types, and enact the slices of Americana as time shifts and customs change through the years. Humor and pathos combine to show glimpses of families in action, all eager to occupy or escape the dining room and what it might represent.

Following actors as they morph in a new scene can be quite fun. For example, Kit Grimm gets to play a father, a husband, a philanderer, a grandfather, a five-year-old, son to an aged mother, and more. A treat for the actor, it's also a treat for the audience to witness the rapid changes from one character to the next, and discover who they are in each scene. Gurney often has scenes overlap, bleed into each other, so that a character in the next scene appears when the current scene is still happening. Initially surprising, this becomes an intriguing device, one that can augment the appreciation of both scenes.

Some character names reappear in later scenes, although the character is different—older, maybe in new circumstances—leading one to try and make connections. But it doesn't really matter. The context is always the same: families, relating or not to one another, making life easy or difficult for each other, resisting or promoting change, going with the times or clinging steadfastly to the past. Gurney reminds us that there can be good reasons for maintaining tradition and, also, good reasons for chucking traditions that don't help us hold on to what's really important.

Director Joey Hoeber has cast the piece well, with actors capable of making believable characters in short strokes who can make us laugh and touch our hearts with equal measure. It's hard to name standouts in such a strong ensemble, but memorable characters include Kit Grimm's irascible grandfather, Handeland's clever psychiatrist, Hoffmann's futuristic architect, Wagoner's precocious Carolyn, Guaraglia's hip teen Nancy, and Isabelle Grimm's frustrated typist Aggie. And, of course, there's the hilarious birthday party.

Scenic design by Bruce Lackovic and lighting by William Ferguson work together to evoke a lovely, inviting room, deserving of the many compliments heaped on it by the characters. Rick Love's sound design is puzzling at times. Jaime Love's costume design helps to delineate characters with quick changes and minimal pieces.

Overall, the effect is a delightful evening's entertainment, an homage to a faded past that yet gives a nod to traditions worth saving.

The Dining Room, through February 4, 2018, at Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa St, Sonoma CA. Tickets, at $22.00-$37.00, can be purchased online at http://www.sonomaartslive.org or by phone at 866-710-8942.


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