Generations of white privilege gradually fade around the dining room table

COLUMBIA, 12/2/12 (Revue) -- Amidst all the Obama/Romney post-election analysis, A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room -- now playing at Columbia's Berlin Theatre -- couldn't be more timely.

President Obama
won a second term, pundits generally agree, not only as a likable leader, but also as the beneficiary of seismic demographic shifts.
The fading America his opponent -- the white, Anglo-Saxon patrician Mitt Romney -- reportedly represented is the same America Berlin Theatre audiences get to examine this week and next, up close and personal around an upper middle class dining room table.
Directed with an eye toward small but telling details by Barbara Salvadori-Heritage -- a Brazilian Ph.D. student at Mizzou -- the roughly 2-hour play opens with the biggest change of all:  the sale of the family home where the dining room -- center stage throughout the evening -- isn't used much anymore.
That place of so much WASPy display -- from the fine manners to the fine china; the Waterford crystal to the silver tableware that needs polishing twice a month -- has become part museum, part tomb, a place of lesser relevance in a world the play's characters bemoan has run out of time for the niceties of life.

How the dining room lost its mojo is the play's time-traveling subject, as the same six players -- anonymously named Actors 1-6 in the evening program -- morph into some 57 fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters; children; teenagers; college students; maids; servants; grandmothers, grandfathers; and a host of interlopers, some welcome -- like the woodworker hired to repair the dining room table, wobbling on its moorings;  others despised, like the uncle cheating with his brother's wife, or rumors of closeted homosexuality that promise to tarnish the family name.

The play's richest roles belong to Ed Hanson and Thiago Palma, evolving male patriarchs forced to cope with senility, old age, death, and in a standout quasi-monologue, Palma's reaction to those rumors that uncle so-and-so "is a fruit."
Cast as a white Northeasterner, Palma -- also from Brazil -- adds an unintended but effective layer of suggestion to the dining room's evolution.  With a slight but noticeable accent, his rounded, careful pronunciations suggest forces foreign yet elemental, gradually moving from the edges to center stage.
Hanson has some of his best moments as a cranky ghost of America past, grumping and chiding and groaning about the good ol' days, when children stayed close to home and global sensibilities were best left unsensed.
The high point of the cranky ghost's life comes as he plans his own funeral, instructing his impatient son with anal retentive glee about which sermons to read, which family members to invite, which liquors to imbibe, which hymns to sing.   Insisting that all songs in his honor be uplifting, it seems as if the old man has decided since he can't beat the changing times, he'll leave them behind with a bang.  

Hanson pulls off this man's final act with an intriguing mix of comedy -- and dignity. 

Craig Yager, Shannon Palmer, Natalie Ault, and Lorrie Evelyn Furrer round out a strong cast that closes The Dining Room  with the same rousing ruefulness that has tied the play together from beginning to end. 

The final act suggests the bittersweet nature of change -- and the ability of humans to adapt.   It is a toast, partly to the future, partly in honor of the past, with all six cast members raising their glasses around the dining room table.  

[On a separate note, be sure to stay for The Stable Boys' improvisational comedy performance just after the play ends on Saturdays.  Actually three handsome young men and one cute young woman, with excellent comedic timing and wild imaginations, The Stable Boys turn random words from the audience into non-stop, completely improvised laughter.  A real delight!]

 -- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat

The Dining Room at the Berlin Theatre
Sunday, Dec. 2 and December 6-9
210 North Tenth Street, Columbia, Missouri