Theater

The Gamm Stages a Tearjerker

Our most challenging local drama company proves it can keep it simple and still remain powerful

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Damn you, Gamm Theatre. Just damn you.

After years of attending countless harrowing, mind-bending, emotionally riveting performances at the Gamm, I thought I had experienced it all. In fact, it was on their productions that I cut my teeth as a theater-goer, and over time I had become accustomed to their, shall we say, challenging brand of drama and comedy. A soul-crushing stage adaptation of Orwell’s 1984? I can handle that. A scenery-chewing rendition of Mamet’s classic Glengarry Glen Ross? Easy. An absurdist exploration of torture and secrecy that alternates between funny and terrifying (Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them)? I’m along for the ride. The Gamm’s reputation for confrontational, unorthodox and ultimately invigorating theater is such that when a companion asked me, “Do they ever do any comedies?”, I replied, “Sure, they did one a couple of years back about a series of child murders.”

Thus, in attending press night for their newest play, Dan LeFranc’s award-winning The Big Meal, I thought I was ready for anything the Gamm could throw at me. A family drama set around a dinner table? The last time they did that was the psychologically devastating Festen, so I knew I should probably expect awful people doing and saying horrible things to each other. To director Tyler Dobrowsky and artistic director Tony Estrella, I said, “Bring it on.” (Not literally.)

Of course, the Gamm always has a few tricks up its sleeve, and like many great tricks, the genius of this one is in its simplicity. Though I thought I had survived every kind of emotional rollercoaster the theater could put me on, it turns out there was something very simple and straightforward that I had never experienced in their cozy Pawtucket confines: a good, old fashioned tearjerker. Good God…

The Gamm is billing The Big Meal as “One table. Eight actors. 80 years in the life of an ordinary family in 90 extraordinary minutes.” That’s one way to describe it. Another would be to say that it’s essentially the beautiful and heartbreaking opening montage of Pixar’s Up, expanded into an hour-and-a-half with real people. And fans of that movie will know that I mean this in the best possible way.

The Big Meal, which is presented without intermission, is a breathless tour de force of family drama, centered around two characters and one restaurant. A young Sam and Nicole meet in Any Restaurant, USA and proceed to hook up, date, fall in love, have a family, break up, fight, love and, eventually, die. Only eight actors manage to inhabit a dizzying array of characters at various ages across scenes that abruptly switch and run into each other. The twenty-something actress who is playing the female lead in one scene may suddenly be playing that character’s daughter in the next scene, set many years later. The transitions are sudden and mostly accomplished with lighting cues and dialogue that often breaks off mid-sentence. In a testament to the talent both on stage and behind it, this is never confusing or difficult to piece together. The superb troupe of actors, including seven Gamm veterans and one newcomer, manages to handle this relay with ease and aplomb, with multiple actors able to imbue the same character with familiar mannerisms and eccentricities in a way that allows the audience to always keep the “who’s who?” straight and remain connected to these people as we see them grow and age.

Again, what startles about The Big Meal is its simplicity – not just in the minimalist and highly efficient staging of it (a hallmark of this theater), but also in the story itself. There are no big reveals, no harrowing twists, no heady concepts, no experimental conceits. And unlike my Festen-fueled expectations, this wasn’t about awful people doing and saying horrible things to each other. The Big Meal is about perfectly normal (albeit flawed and often difficult) people doing and saying completely understandable (albeit often hurtful) things to each other – and from that familiarity it draws its power.

The Big Meal is just that: it’s a lot to chew on despite its simplicity. By the last third of the play, any lull in the dialogue on stage was filled by the unmistakable sniffling of the audience choking back tears. It’s a story about people like us, sharing meals, triumphs and failures; loving and hurting each other; turning on each other in rage and betrayal, only to stick around faithfully in moments of real need; and coping with the ceaseless march of time that claims us all. That’s part of what makes it so heartbreaking – it’s a story we’ll all experience in our own way.

The Big Meal runs at the Gamm Theatre through February 9.

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