'The Dining Room' Revisits a Fading Family Tradition - 27 East

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‘The Dining Room’ Revisits a Fading Family Tradition

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Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" this weekend. DANE DUPUIS

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" this weekend. DANE DUPUIS

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" this weekend. DANE DUPUIS

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's

Center Stage presents A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" this weekend. DANE DUPUIS

Center Stage actors Richard Gardini and Susan Cincotta during rehearsals of A.R. Gurney's

Center Stage actors Richard Gardini and Susan Cincotta during rehearsals of A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" which runs this weekend at SAC. DANE DUPUIS

authorAnnette Hinkle on Apr 22, 2024

Gathering around the dining table for a shared meal has long been a cherished tradition in this country. For generations, the dining room was not just reserved for holidays — it was typically the one place where a family could count on catching up with one another. The dining table was where details of the day were exchanged, children received counsel from wise parents and siblings, and big family news was broken (along with the bread).

But times have changed. With busy lives and divergent schedules, these days fewer families can find time to sit down together regularly for dinner in the same place at the same time. And when, on that rare occasion, they do happen to find themselves seated in the same space for a meal, odds are good that the cellphones will be close at hand and for many, will remain the primary focus.

In something of a throwback, the shared meal will be the theme of the next Center Stage production at Southampton Arts Center. Directed by Michael Disher and running April 26 to 28 at SAC, A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” is a series of 18 vignettes that all take place in that once essential room.

“Long before open concepts and eat-in-kitchens, the dining room was the heart of a home where people religiously got together at least once a day and often twice or sometimes three times a day,” Disher said. “Remember when people used to talk and communicate? A lot of that was in the dining room.”

Written in 1982, Gurney’s play is not “historic” in any sense of the word. But given how much life has changed since the advent of social media, “The Dining Room” evokes that earlier era of communal family meals as it examines the increasingly endangered dining room through its versatility and variety of functions.

“These are 18 different vignettes that attack, discover, present declarations, promises, misgivings and life-changing events — all of which happen in a dining room,” Disher explained.

While the scenes in the play are time specific, reflecting the function of the dining room throughout different periods in history, Disher noted that the audience will need to listen closely to the text for clues of exactly when each vignette takes place.

“In one scene, a father is discussing with his son how the government is systemically destroying the country. They’re coming out of the Depression in the 1930s,” Disher said. “Or there could be a reference to a product. In another scene, two girls want to use the dining room for their clandestine rendezvous with their boyfriends to smoke pot and drink Fresca.”

That’s a reference pointing firmly to the 1970s.

“The only constant is the table and chairs,” said Disher of what remains on stage between scenes. “One vignette fades right into the next and you have to think of each vignette as a page in a photo album. It’s a different time, era and mindset. It’s beautifully crafted, and I think it’s one of Gurney’s best plays.

While “The Dining Room” calls for a cast of six who take on all of its 57 roles, Disher has expanded that number and for this production is relying on 12 actors. Like the fading of the dining room tradition itself, he chalks it up to the need to accommodate the increasingly busy lives of his actors.

“I had to be sensitive to their availability,” Disher said.

In many ways, that’s been the driving motivator for Center Stage since it began its new partnership with the Southampton Arts Center last fall. With his reliance on performers who also have day jobs, Disher’s vision was to stay flexible by offering productions at SAC that require fewer rehearsals and plays running as staged readings over the course of a single weekend, rather than in multiweek runs, as was the case several years ago when Center Stage operated nearby at the Southampton Cultural Center.

What Center Stage has presented in season one at SAC has been quite a mix. It began last fall with a radio play based on Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” followed by another radio play — this one an all new Christmas piece co-written by Disher and playwright Joe Landry. Then in late January, the company turned to a classic by presenting Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” directed by Joan Lyons.

“‘The Dining Room’ will be the first off-book show,” Disher said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s fully realized, but it’s pretty darn close. That’s part of the developmental process. Running one weekend with limited rehearsals. Can we pull of a full-fledged piece? For this one, we’ll do it.”

With this production, Disher will complete his first season of Center Stage’s tenure at SAC. Overall, he’s been pleased with how it has worked out, and he is discovering that a whole new audience is coming to the SAC shows.

“I would have to say, it’s ever-evolving. It has been a learning curve. Theater is such an unquantifiable animal. What is going to stick and what is going to work? We’re finding out what people like to see and what people don’t want to see,” Disher said. “We can never say this is a slam dunk, this is going to be good, this will work, this won’t work. We’re always experimenting. This entire first season has been extremely experimental.”

For Disher, who has directed plays on the East End for decades, after undergoing treatment in recent years for a 2018 cancer diagnosis and related complications, just being in the theater again is a joy. You could say he’s back in his happy place.

“It’s purpose and passion, what more can you say? I’m one of those people who knows what we’re supposed to be doing in life, and that’s what I do,” he said. “I have to say, the main and most important ingredient to this recipe is I have finally ‘collected’ 12 people — all of whom I’ve known and worked with many times — and it’s been probably one of the most cohesive rehearsal pieces I’ve ever had.

“These people are quite good,” he added. “They know what I expect, which is sometimes more than what they expect of themselves, and they’ve come together and know that this could potentially be the sandbox that they all like to experiment in.”

When asked if there are specific vignettes in this show that he finds particularly poignant, Disher responded that one of his favorite scenes in the play involves a father who takes his son into the dining room to detail the instructions for his funeral.

“He talks about what he wants, what he doesn’t want, what he expects,” Disher said. “It’s so lovingly humorous, heart-warming, gut-wrenching and it segues into a scene of a slightly older woman lamenting that people don’t give dinner parties anymore that were based on elegance with fingerbowls and butter bowls.

“Several of the vignettes really hit me, but I’m not sure if it’s for obvious reasons,” he added. “Some of them are so well performed. I’m really very pleased with this group. They’ve done their homework and they know they’re about to do something special.”

The cast of Center Stage’s production of A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” includes: Daniel Becker, Susan Cincotta, Susan Conklin, Bethany Dellapolla, Richard Gardini, Tom Gregory, Barbara Jo Howard, Jenifer Maxson, Franco Pistritto, Jack Seabury, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Christopher Tyrrko and Gerri Wilson. Stage management and design is by Joseph Giovingo and lighting and sound is by Kenneth Blessing. Performances are Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 27, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m. at Southampton Arts Center, 25. Jobs Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $20 ($15 SAC members) at southamptonartscenter.org or 631-283-0967.

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