Because playwright A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” has been performed so many times by so many groups, including college, community, and regional theaters, one doesn’t expect to be shocked by the look of it.
Yet at Westport Country Play, under the stellar direction of Mark Lamos, with the brilliant set design by Michael Yeargan accented by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, John Gromada’s sound, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes, first sight of this play stops you in your tracks and takes your breath away.
Gone are the polished mahogany tables and silver-laden services that graced so many a stage productions of this play. Instead, there’s a ghostly look about the room and everything in it. It’s as if the room had been frozen in time — a very long time ago. Considering that the play is about the demise of the privileged WASP, this play is more real than ever and the setting leaves no doubt about it.
Gurney wrote in the playbill that he had first envisioned the play being “performed behind a velvet rope as if in a museum of antiquities… of a long-lost culture.”
In Westport’s presentation, the scenes unfold as distant memories visualized. A great deal of this has to do with the entire set, including the dining room chairs and table, being painted a graveyard bluish-gray color. It is as stunning as it is haunting. More importantly, it is quite telling of a culture disappearing from the American scene and specifically about generations of an American family’s traditions going the way of the dinosaur.
Adding to the sense of a vanishing breed, along with its servants and treasured traditions, the director has the versatile cast drink invisible cups of coffee, carry non-existent trays, and eat and drink foods and cocktails left to the imagination. Six extremely gifted actors play some 50 roles in this production. They include Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides, and Jennifer Van Dyck. (Yes, Keira Naughton is the daughter of James Naughton and Jake Robards is the son of Jason Robards.)
As the actors take on roles from juvenile to senior, we see how important that room, the dining room, was to WASP families. They had cocktails at 5 and dinner at 7 in this coveted room. Youngsters couldn’t wait to be old enough to sit at the dining room table and everything from romantic interludes to requests for money happened in this room.
It is only in the final scene when a crisp white linen table cloth, priceless china, sparkling crystal, polished silverware and an elegant floral centerpiece grace the dulled-with-age table. Then the two candles flanking the flowers are extinguished, showing for one brief moment the glory of a privileged American family, which like the candles eventually die out.
A superb production, Westport’s empty “Dining Room” is full of history. It plays through May 18. Box office: 203-227-4177.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]