THE BIG MEAL:  60 Years in the Life of an American Family in 90 minutes!

THE BIG MEAL:  60 Years in the Life of an American Family in 90 minutes!

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Somewhere in America, in a typical suburban restaurant, on a typical night, Sam and Nicole first meet—and sparks fly.  So begins a tale that traverses five generations of a modern family, from first kiss to last goodbye. The Big Meal
 by Dan LeFranc tells the extraordinary story of an ordinary family!  This statement succinctly captures the essence of the Independent Players’ third production of 2018-2019 in a “nutshell.”

Opening on May 4, the production is directed by Larry Boller and stars Katrina Syrris, Richard Isemonger, Lori Rohr, Sean Hargadon, Janette Jacobs, Tom Ochocinski.  Maddie Hargadon and Alden Mark.  It will run Fridays and Saturdays, May 3-4, 10-11, & 17-18, 2019 at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street, Elgin.  The doors open at 7 PM. Curtain time is 7:30 PM.

The Big Meal received its world premiere at the American Theatre Company in Chicago where it was declared the #1 play of 2011 by Time Out Chicago and received five Joseph Jefferson nominationsWhen it played in New York Off-Broadway, it received a Drama Desk nomination and four Lucille Lortel nominations including for “Outstanding Play.”   It is, in the words of one critic:  “A stunning, big-hearted play that spans nearly eighty years in roughly 90 minutes.”  It does this by using minimal sets and props and telling a simple story through everyday conversations and interactions—and Mark Lowry says: [It] has something quite profound to say about that final exit we all must take.”

In many families, shared meals in their kitchens or dining rooms are at the center of their existence. In recent years, however, more and more people opt to celebrate major holidays and special family events in restaurants. So The Big Meal’s generic restaurant is very much a NOW setting for what’s happening to NOW couples—including “uncoupling” as well as “coupling” and “recoupling”, dealing with embarrassing and or non-nurturing parents, disappointing children, the loss of jobs as well as of family members. At first glance, it looks like this is a play in which nothing much happens, but everything does.

Much of what makes The Big Meal so interesting is watching the actors evolve into all the characters within their age group before our very eyes.  For example, Sam and Nicole’s daughter Mattie introduces them to three different boyfriends in quick succession who are all played by the same actor. This is achieved by a cast of four couples, each of which represents a significant stage in human life—from youngsters to senior citizens.

Some people might think that navigating through 80 years of high and low points in the lives of one family in just 85 minutes may sound like an attempt to dumb down an epic saga for viewers with short attention spans.  Not so! By the time one has witnessed this dramatic variation of thumbing through a family album, one will see that LeFranc’s methodology is deceptively obvious and familiar.  There’s nothing trivial about a play that heightens one’s awareness that life does indeed fly by and that will have one reflecting about the state of the American family and how many lives people choosing to become a couple affect. As one might suspect, this play will touch every aspect of the human emotional spectrum.

Some critics have noted that, in many ways, The Big Meal could be called a streamlined post-modern Our Town saga, with Nicole and Sam’s story, no longer played out in the kitchens and streets of Grovers Corners, but confined to a table in a generic restaurant. Like Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking abandonment of kitchen sink realism, LeFranc’s anywhere USA restaurant has few props. For Thornton Wilder fans, The Big Meal might also have been inspired by his earlier one-act play, The Long Christmas Dinner, which followed a family through numerous generations sharing their Christmas meal.  Audience members may remember seeing Our Town when IP presented it in the fall of 2017 and compare some of the similarities the two plays share. Perhaps it will make one see just how universal human behavior actually is. Even though Thornton Wilder is very much an unseen ghost hovering over The BigMeal, is not a “copy-cat” version of Our Town.  Even though it dishes up a realistic number of family problems, neither is this another dysfunctional family drama.  Instead, The Big Meal is the Real Deal:  an innovative, intelligent, entertaining play.

After its world premiere at the American Theatre Company in Chicago, various critics had all sorts of good things to say about it.  Tony Adler at The Chicago Reader discusses the connection between The Big Meal and Our Town in this way: “The most important similarity is a shared ‘breadth of vision’.  Although they portray it differently, neitherOur Townnor The Big Mealstops short of death. LeFranc follows his characters all the way through to the end of the knowable. We see members of the Sam-and-Nicole family, retire from life as we might see them pull away from a meal. This gives the piece a somber resonance despite all its great humor.  A terrible beauty, indeed.”

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribunewrote: “In just 85 minutes of stage traffic, Dan LeFranc’s arresting and moving new play The Big Meal serves up more truths about parenting, bereavement, divorce, irritating in-laws, economic stress, marriage and the modern American family than most plays of twice that duration.”  Hedy Weiss, at the Chicago Sun Timesdescribed the play in this way:  “The essential conceit at work here is that the actors continually become their characters at different ages and also become part of the subsequent generations.  These layers accrue with perfect behavioral and linguistic shifts, almost as if the characters’ DNA is being passed on within this small tribe of actors.  The whole human cycle is imprinted here, yet never telegraphed.”

Among the many other reviews the show received on its premiere, Alan Bresloff in Around the Town Chicago describes the action thusly:  “This is a roller coaster ride of emotions as we watch the cast of eight change roles as the years go on.  There are times of confusion for us, the audience, as it is easy to get lost in the years moving along as our young couple become an older couple, as the young cast members become their kids and so on.  Only the actual children in the play are always children, but not always the same children.  The stage is fairly empty, only using tables and chairs as the need arises for either more or less, and the off stage actors waiting as they are on deck to return as someone else.”

One final critique from Tom Williams writing in the Chicago Critic:  “As the minutes fly by, we eventually start to get the larger picture of the cycles of life that comes from that first meeting years ago.  We are struck by just how many people each of us affects during our lifetime.  We lament as the family members eat their “big meal” as they pass from us.  Taken as a whole, The Big Meal becomes a vivid and complete profile of the cycles of family life.  One can take this roller-coaster dinner ride to gather a glimpse into the possible dynamics of one’s family’s growth.”

Once again, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal plays Fridays and Saturdays, May 3-4, 10-11, 17-18, 2019 at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street, Elgin.  Curtain time is 7:30 PM. Tickets are available online at www.independent players.org; they are also available at the door each evening before the performance (cash/check only).  For reservations or information, call (847) 697-7374.
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