The second offering of the University Players at the University of Windsor is A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room; a touching look at how the life of the American family has centered around that space for generations. With just six actors playing different characters per scene, it’s a beautiful challenge that is an absolute pleasure to watch.
The set and setting itself is so beautiful; the whole play takes place in an ornate dining room, with all of the elegance that comes with it. What would now be considered a thing of time gone by, the dining room becomes the focus as its function changes from generation to generation. What’s wonderful is how the room stays exactly the same. Sure, the chairs move and different place-mats get laid out, but the room itself stays unchanged. That stability is what grounds the play and allows the characters to move through it so fluidly and David Court has expertly created the beauty of the room that every generation marvels at.
The costumes were another phenomenon all their own. They are the main indicator of the period in which the characters existed while also giving each character their unique personality. While the various actors and actresses stayed within a similar colour palette (one of each in blue, black and grey), each character they played had their own unique style. It was amazing how fast some of the changes had to be, as sometimes two characters in consecutive scenes would be played by the same actor/actress. Costumer designer Agatha Knelsen created pieces that were simultaneously suggestive of the time and timeless; helping to distinguish character but indicate actor/actress. However, as actress Somerville Black pointed out at the talk-back after the show, at a certain point you become far more invested in the stories being told rather than concerned about figuring out which time period you’re in or if the characters are the same from scene to scene.
The Dining Room is an absolute marvel of a story. When I initially read the premise of the show, I definitely had an image in mind of how the play might work. I was glad to be totally mistaken. The timeline of the story, at least in regards to which time period is being explored, is completely non linear with different characters from different eras occasionally occupying the space at the same time. It was an intriguing way to present the story, as it forced me to stop expecting everything to be tied together and to appreciate the stories on their own. What was even better was that the characters didn’t carry over from story to story. Every time a new scene began new characters were introduced, allowing the play to tell so many more stories over the course of the play. But as actor Keaton Kwok pointed out, there is no attempt to hide the fact that there are only the 6 actors/actresses playing all of the different characters. It allows you to enjoy the story but also be awed by the actors and their performances.
The acting was nothing short of remarkable. With each actor/actress playing anywhere between 9 and 11 characters, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to keep all of the personalities and lines straight in their heads. The cast is comprised of Keaton Kwok, Darius Rathe, Coleton Dénommé, Madeline Kennedy, Somerville Black, and Eugenia De Jong. Having worked with half of this cast in previous productions, I have to say that it was no surprise that they were able to handle this play with the level of mastery which they did. Taking turns playing fathers or mothers, children, servants, with the subtle changes in tone, movement, and costume made each character unique. Their acting skills were certainly put to the test by this play, and they passed with flying colours.
One thing that really struck me was how many scenes included a domestic servant. It’s one of those things that you know lasted a while in the UK, but at that it was only in large households which required more attention than a normal sized family could manage. But I thought houses like “Downton Abbey” were the last of their kind. Yet the families shown in the 30’s and 40’s and even into the 50’s still had at least cooks if not more helping them around the house. It was an element of the play that I wasn’t anticipating, but it certainly harkened back to a time where that was the norm and the dining room a very visible place for those helping around the house.
However, my favourite part of the play, and one which the actors mentioned was their favourite as well, was the ending. I don’t want to give it away, but what I will say is that it leaves you feeling a part of the family. It’s a beautiful ending to a heartwarming play which I cannot recommend enough.
The Dining Room is in its final weekend of performances. Go see it before time runs out!