Lick your lips and go to
Eye of the Storm Theatre's production of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends is as light, yet rich and thoroughly satisfying, as the perfectly baked lemon and almond polenta cake served in the comedy's opening scene.
Gabe is a 40-something food writer, and he and his editor wife Karen think, talk and live good food and wine. They whip up natty feasts in their kitchen and, for years, have shared their culinary creations with their closest friends, Beth and Tom. The foursome have shared their lives, vacations and children as though they were family; but when Beth and Tom divorce, the aftermath rattles Karen and Gabe more deeply than it does Beth and Tom.
In Dinner, Margulies takes a witty and poignant look at the essential fragility of relationships and the powerful need for connection that propels people into them
Casey Stangle directs Dinner with all the assurance and flair of a fine cook, who is confident of the first-rate ingredients she has selected for a particularly good recipe.
Stangle opens the play with Mediterranean music from Martin Gwinup's strong sound design and with a half-lit glimpse of the four characters, frozen in strained attitudes, around a candle-lit dinner table. The lights go down; and rise on Karen, Gabe and Beth. Tellingly, they blow out the candles before seating themselves in the snugness of their friendship.
Such details zest the opening of Dinner, but Stangle's mastery comes in the cadences she conjures from her actors for Margulies' script. She finds laugh-out-loud humor in fierce eye contact across a room and in the spaces between the delivery of the lines. From each accomplished actor, she draws a performance nuanced by shifts in gesture and expression so that, combined with Margulies' ear for dialogue, the characters quicken with life on stage.
(l-r): Kirsten Frantzich (Beth), Terry Hempleman (Gabe),
Charity Jones (Karen), J.C. Cutler (Tom)
Charity Jones plays Karen, a woman who likes everything to be just so in her life. In Jones's expressive hands, Karen is warm and loving and the queen of the little family she has assembled around herself with Gabe, Tom, Beth and their children. But for all Karen's self-assurance, she's readily unnerved by her sudden proximity to the precipice of uncertainty that her friends' divorce opens at her feet. Jones walks her character along the edge of that insecurity with a calibrated finesse.
Karen is the trousers in her marriage to accommodating Gabe, played by Terry Hempleman in a wonderfully shaded performance. Gabe is in love with Karen, but admits to the perennially adolescent Tom that it's a struggle for him that his sweetheart is having the hot flashes of pre-menopause. Hempleman finds Gabe's sensitivity, his bloke-like awkwardness in the face of Beth's revelation that Tom is leaving her, and his edgy, man-to-man honesty with Tom.
J.C. Cutler's Tom claims to have been trapped in a sexless marriage with Kirsten Frantzich's Beth but, in a great scene that feels well-trodden he picks a fight with his separated wife that mounts, "Bolero" style, into ferocious sex. Cutler taps Tom's boyish appeal but, where Tom stays part boy, Beth grows up. Frantzich's fine performance spans the range of Beth's evolution from ditsy would-be artist to clear-sighted self-knowledge.
Almost as present as another character is Joe Stanley's remarkable set and lighting design. A modular series of windows, doors and panels unfold, unpack and morph into seven different scenes. Stangle choreographs each scene change in a poetry of movement, and allows one painterly moment, mid-change, in which Karen stares wistfully out of a nighttime window.
As characters struggle to adapt to the holes that gap open in their lives when treasured predictabilities change, Dinner offers real food for thought, and EYOTS's production is as delectable as a finely presented meal.
Dinner With Friends April 5 - May 11. Thursdays through Sundays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $10 -$25. Eye of the Storm Theatre, Theatre Garage, Corner of Lyndale and Franklin Avenues, Minneapolis. Call: 612-343-3390, or log on to ticketworks.com.