‘The Big Meal’ at The Studio Theatre by Don Mike Mendoza

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One of the most important things a family unit can share is a meal around a table together, and The Studio Theatre’s production of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal shows us how much of our lives can revolve around a meal, as we observe five generations of an American family meet at the same restaurant table over a period of 75 years.

(l to r) Matt Dougherty, Sam O'Brien, Hyla Matthews, Maya Brettell, Chris Genebach, and Annie Houston in 'The Big Meal.' Photo by Carol Pratt.

You may have seen it all before: the annoying in-laws, marriages, parenthood, colleges, family members moving away, divorce, illnesses, stress, the inexperience of youth, lack of communication, growing old, and people dying, but what’s different here is that it feels so real and honest – and at times – really funny and powerful and heartbreaking.

This was my first time at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, and I was treated to a truly memorable theatrical experience in this intimate space. The Big Meal’s success is due to LeFranc keeping it simple – focusing on the message of family without any extra pomp and circumstance, and this was ably accomplished by Set Designer Timothy Mackabee’s simple set – placing the characters within three tables.

Moving the three tables supported and set up each new plot twist, and I was intrigued by the fact that the actors stayed on stage and engaged for the entire time – rather than going off stage when they weren’t part of a scene.

Ashley Faye Dillard and Josh Adams in 'The Big Meal.' Photo by Carol Pratt.

Director Johanna Gruenhut did a phenomenal job with her cast because she created an ensemble with the right chemistry. The family was played by eight talented actors: Josh Adams, Maya Brettell, Ashley Dillard, Matt Dougherty, Chris Genebach, Annie Houston, Hyla Matthews, and Sam O’Brien, and each was required to play multiple characters from different generations of the family. Taking on multiple characters with different personalities is a difficult task, and this cast took that on with great ease. Sarah Taurchini  – the ninth actor – played the role of a server at the restaurant.

Although all the acting was terrific, I really enjoyed Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews as Nicole’s parents, Annie Houston as the optimistic great-grandmother and Hyla Matthews as Middle-Aged Nicole. Josh Adams was so convincing as a heart-broken soldier.

What made this show even better was the balance it presented between the family’s good times, such as a wedding reception, and the bad times such as the death of different members, or the drama that occurred when damaging secrets were revealed. The meals that they shared all represented either the entrance or exit of each person, which was worked in very well with the story.

Sound and lighting designed by Elisheba Ittoop and John Burkland, respectively, both contributed to the production without being too outlandish. It was simple, like the set design, and was not over -the – top yet supported the action on stage appropriately. Addy Diaz dressed the actors, and although each actor played multiple characters, not much changed physically except for a hat or a jacket to signify a new person, which was an excellent strategy. Without major costume changes, it gave the actors more room to play with personality and also made the audience focus on that rather than a costume change.

Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews in 'The Big Meal.' Photo by Carol Pratt.

Overall, everything about this show flowed well together and it was an engaging story that held my attention for the entire time. There was never a dull moment. Just when you thought you knew everything about the family in front of you, a new twist was thrown at you. When the show ended, the thunderous applause didn’t stop until the cast came out for a second bow – beckoned by the excited audience members.

The Big Meal is a feast of tasty pleasures. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Big Meal plays through May 20, 2012 at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.