Don't judge playwright A.R. Gurney on his goofy play about a dog played by a woman or his tired (and tiring) play about two old people reading love letters to each other. His earlier work suggests more interesting possibilities. Take The Dining Room, which solidified Gurney's position as spokesman for the fading upper-middle-class lifestyle of the American WASP. Gurney's bittersweet panorama of changing American lifestyles—from the Great Depression to 1980—charts the evolution via a proud, stately dining room set, at which generations of family members convene through time. The result is a fascinating collage from early, authoritarian, shut-up-and-sit-up-straight dinners to later, looser times—all pointing to inevitable decline. It's a hectic, mind-boggling task: seven actors portraying 50-plus characters in vignettes emphasizing the individual's burdens of aging, disenchantment and, ultimately, disenfranchisement.
Talented director Jeremy Fillinger is undaunted by the overlapping multiple lives, staging and zigzag time path—or the minimal budget. He elicits remarkably motivated performances from the fine cast, all of whom pack many moods into two hours. Highlights include Joe Schulein's delightful, haunting self-eulogy; Anne Rudd's piercing downward arc from controlling mom to disoriented grandma; Adam Clark and Summer Sage adroitly capturing the many facets of a couple's travails; and Adeye Sahran, Jason L. Lewis and Alana Tilton uncannily recalling the freedom and shackles of childhood.
It may not be Albee, but Gurney's sensitive and touching portrait of a family dealing with life and loss is funny and smart, a fine choice for this small community theater—which tackles the material bravely.
The Dining Room at the Garden Grove Playhouse, 12001 Saint Mark St., Garden Grove, (714) 897-5122. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Aug. 19, 2 p.m. Through Aug. 25. $9-$10.