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Essay

Tim Sanford on "The Big Meal"

My snap description of The Big Meal has been to call it a "post modernThe Dining Room." For those of you who have never seen or read this seminal 1981 play by A. R. Gurney, you need only know that the whole play takes place in a well appointed dining room where a cast of six assumes a variety of roles, all of which taken together depict the gradual slippage of American WASP culture. It's worth noting that whenThe Dining Room was first produced, several critics noted resemblances of that play to Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, in which a family holiday dinner gradually shifts to future generations over the course of the play. Undoubtedly, students of criticism could find comparisons of Wilder to even earlier writers. Now, ex-Comp Lit majors like me love to make literary comparisons: not to reduce the achievement of something new, but to deepen our understanding of something, to locate it on the larger continuum of artistic achievement, and most of all to help identify what is unique and surprising about the new work.

In Dan LeFranc's world, the locus of American family life has long since left Wilder's and Gurney's rarely used dining rooms, replaced by a monochromatic array of interchangeable restaurant chains that give witness to the same broad spectrum of human drama as was once confined to the family home, or indeed the family dining room. There's another difference as well. Gurney's play creates a mosaic of many discrete scenes, each a small play in itself, unified by theme and theatricality. Dan's play depicts one family followed over four generations. (In this regard, it is more similar to Wilder's play). As the characters age, so do the actors who depict them, which is to say that each of the eight actors in The Big Meal play different members of this family at various stages in their lives. But this is not the only trick of time in The Big Meal. Time also keeps slipping forward right in the middle of scenes. The effect emphasizes how quickly momentous changes happen, often against our will or knowledge, and how long we hang onto our secrets and resentments before they come tumbling out, again so often seemingly against our will.

The greatness of Dan's play does not lie in its mechanics, however. Its greatness lies in its scope and vision, in the specificity of its observations and its compassionate, yet hawk-eyed humanity. It's a hugely theatrical, epic, yet intimate play, and the metaphoric resonances of its title evolve as we watch it. We start with the literal meaning. Many many meals transpire over the course of the play, each of them "big" for a variety of reasons. Such is the variety of these many "big meals" that, over time, we come to see the title as a metaphor for life itself. It makes complete sense to point to our corporeal essence as human animals by arranging all of the play's activities around mealtime. And all the functions of the body have their time in the play and rub up against this meal metaphor as well. Some of these moments devolve into hilarious chaos; others land with thunderous simplicity and solemnity. In the end, The Big Meal also comes to refer to the play itself. Dan spreads his story before us like a banquet and its theatricality entices us like a feast.

I've used as many tools of persuasion as I could muster in a short, one-page letter to trumpet my enthusiasm for The Big Meal, but I haven't tried hyperbole yet. Nor a quote. Let's try both in one. In an e-mail exchange with Annie Baker earlier this year, she said, "Can't wait to see this coming season's plays especially THE BIG MEAL WHICH IS THE GREATEST PLAY EVER WRITTEN." See, it's not just me who's excited to see this play. I hope you are now, too.My parents met while working together at a restaurant in the Midwest. My mom was a waitress, my dad a manager. It's a pretty simple love story, one that always seemed to me wholly unremarkable. But one day not so long ago I began to consider how many lives were affected by that chance encounter. Of course my parents' lives changed forever, but so did the lives of their parents, grandparents, siblings, friends—and above all, my sister's and mine. And it just keeps going from there. On and on and on. All because two people happened to meet in a restaurant.

--Tim Sanford, Artistic Director