The meet-cute sequence that introduces us to 20somethings Sam and Nicole is but the preamble to The Big Meal, Dan LeFranc’s remarkable meditation on birth, death, life, love, and the whole damn thing, now getting a laughter-and-tear-filled Southern California Premiere that is one of Chance Theater’s finest intimate productions ever.
Over the course of ninety entertaining, engrossing, often deeply moving minutes unfolding in one of those ubiquitous American chain restaurants, LeFranc follows a contemporary George Gibbs and Emily Webb from their opposites-attract first meeting on into the decades that unfold after what neither expected to be more than a casual one-night stand.
It would take a cast several times larger and a running time several times longer to accomplish as a film or miniseries what playwright LeFranc and director Jocelyn A. Brown pull off with eight (plus one) performers in The Big Meal’s quintessentially theatrical hour and a half.
Suffice it to say that about ten minutes into Sam and Nicky’s still budding relationship, the roles originally played by Ben Green and Angela Griswold have been taken over by the decade-or-so older Robert Foran and Jennifer Ruckman, just as later the roles first brought to life by preteens Dylan Barton and Abby Lutes get recast as their characters age into young adulthood, and still later stage vets David Carl Golbeck and Karen Webster, who first appear as Sam’s parents, show up in roles we’ve already seen played by others.
Joys and sorrows, blessed events and heartbreaking losses—if it’s happened to you or to someone you love, you’ll likely experience it in The Big Meal.
You’ll also get to see some of the year’s richest, most rewarding performances made even more noteworthy by the fact that just about every major role gets played by at least two cast members meshing seamlessly, their similar manerisms—a head toss, a nervous tic, etc.—making us believe that one performer’s octogenarian is the same character we’ve first glimpsed portrayed earlier by someone in his or her twenties.
Add to that the distinctive qualities each cast member gives to multiple characters—in one prime example Griswold plays both her own daughter and her daughter’s daughter—and you have an ensemble of Chance favorites and newcomers you’re sure to be remembering long after the production’s final spotlight fades to black.
LeFranc’s often overlapping dialog adds challenges to already challenging roles, and it is to director Brown and her cast’s credit that rarely if ever does this provoke even the slightest confusion.
Kelly Ehlert completes the ensemble, wordlessly yet expressively, as the waitress who serves drinks and (occasionally, significantly) meals—to the assembled diners.
Scenic designer Joe Holbrook makes us flies on The Big Meal’s appropriately generic restaurant walls, a dining area that Martha Carter lights with professional finesse. Costume designer Rachael Lorenzetti finds ways to accessorize outfits so as to make it clear that we’re seeing the same character played by a different actor, or a new character portrayed by someone we’ve seen earlier as someone else. Dave Mickey’s sound design replicates ambient restaurant “walla” to further the illusion that there are diners on all four sides.
Bebe Herrera is stage manager. Laurie Smits Staude is dramaturg,
I was unprepared for the impact The Big Meal would have on me. An Our Town for today’s ninety-minute-no-intermission generation of theatergoers, LeFranc’s play reveals a contemporary Thornton Wilder who’s only just getting started. That the playwright happens to have grown up in Aliso Viejo a mere half-hour from the Chance adds serendipity to a production that is one of the year’s most serendipitous discoveries.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
May 4, 2106
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio