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The Big Meal
A Rewarding, Heartwarming Repast
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Also see Richard's reviews of the 2014 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Mark Anderson Phillips, Carrie Paff, Aaron Wilton, Jessica Lynn Carroll, and Catherine MacNeal
From birth to death, and everything in between, Dan LeFranc's newest work, The Big Meal, takes it all on in an energetic and engaging sweep across time and generations in San Jose Rep's Bay Area premiere. On one set that easily morphs into different spaces, the play evolves in short, specific scenes depicting relationships through time, but has a surprising epic feel to it. Eventually we sense the pull of decades, and witness the chain of life as both a melancholy and miraculous occurrence that we are fortunate to experience.

The trick of the play is that all generations, all characters, are played by only eight actors: three women, three men, a boy, and a girl, each of whom changes with every scene to either age or revert in age. At the start, a young couple (Jessica Lynn Carroll, Aaron Wilton) meet in a restaurant, become involved, and eventually marry, beginning their journey through life together (but now played by Carrie Paff and Mark Anderson Phillips). They have children(Sophia Grace Cuthbert, Nicholas Garcia), and they have relationships with their own parents (Catherine MacNeal, Richard Farrell).

We see how their lives change as they age, as their children grow up, as their parents become elderly. It sounds mundane, but it's done so cleverly as actors shift from role to role, and the characters become well-known, even as they're played by different actors. We see the commonalities in the specific—so much of what they experience is familiar, and yet character-driven, too. We may have all had similar incidents as young adults, or teens, or as parents of teens, or dealt with similar conflicts. It feels very American, and yet universal. Ultimately, we feel the scope of the undertaking we call Life, with all its joy, pain, love, grief, pettiness, and grandeur. No small feat, this. One story, of one couple's journey; but done in such a way as to bring us full circle in our own story.

The actors in such a work must be up to the demands of constantly switching characters, finding ways to illustrate the differences and keep the audience from being totally confused—and the ensemble here is thoroughly excellent, each of them outstanding in their own right. Phillips and Paff ably carry the mantle for a while as the couple Sam and Nicki, aging into marriage and parenthood with the requisite cluelessness, but only after Carroll and Wilton give us a wonderful introduction to dating and falling in love. Cuthbert and Garcia are terrific young actors, both a lot of fun to watch. MacNeal and Farrell are superb as the older generation, playing several characters each with subtlety and authenticity.

Occasionally, the character switching is confusing; but usually it only takes a few seconds to understand who has become whom and how old they now are. In the latter third of the play there are some sequences that go on too long, or are too predictable, and the delightful humor of the first half vanishes as the play moves into serious territory thematically. Yet it's quite intriguing for the most part, and is likely to surprise with how moving it is by the end.

Nina Ball's relatively simple restaurant setting becomes so much more as the play progresses, allowing us to witness transitions and transformations, illuminating the transitory nature of existence. Shannon Sigman helps clarify character changes through her costume design, although even more distinguishing costumes might have helped avoid confusion. Director Kirsten Brandt has assembled a fine team and cast to render a beautiful production, one that's likely to stay with you over time.

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc, presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, through June 1, 2014. Tickets available at 408-367-7255 or at www.sjrep.com.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith



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