The Big Meal Features an American Family Doing What America Does Best: Eating

It’s tempting for us cool kids in the back row, occupied as we are with spit wads and sardonic observations on everything, to dismiss the ritual of family gathering around a table and breaking bread—unless it’s at some hipster joint serving pork-belly whatevers—as a relic of the Ozzie and Harriet past. Who’s got the time? Who’s got the interest? Who likes their family enough?

In reality, Gallup reported in 2013 that a majority of adults with children younger than 18 say that they eat dinner together at home six or seven nights per week, a percentage that hasn’t changed appreciably for some 20 years. The family in Dan LeFranc’s heartbreaker of a comedy, The Big Meal, obviously got the memo. They may not eat at home all the time, but dinners at a “very popular chain restaurant in the Midwestern United States” are the spine of this family skeleton. Whether bickering, rejoicing, grieving, planning for the future or remembering the past, it’s all done while pondering a menu that includes everything from corn dogs to enchiladas.

The restaurant—or, rather, restaurants—is intentionally not named. It might be an Applebee’s, a Cracker Barrel, or, on more special occasions, an Outback Steakhouse or Red Lobster. Nor do we ever know just what the people in this family, which stretches four generations in a play that spans some 50 years, actually order; what any of them do for a living; where they live (besides the Midwest); or what their views are on politics, religion, gender, race, or the seemingly impossible chasm between red states filled with urban sophisticates who give a shit about Jon Stewart and flyover blue states filled with redneck mouth-breathers who hate science, women and Jon Stewart.

No, it’s just a normal family filled with all the normalcies that occupy the lives of so many Americans in that massive chunk of real estate located roughly between the Rockies and the Ohio River, a place that, depending on your specific bias, is viewed as either the Heartland of America or the super-sized Wal-Mart where all the fat white people hang out.

The beauty of LeFranc’s play is that he avoids any of the standard tropes. These are not salt-of-the-Earth, Dodge truck-driving, country music-loving, jeans-wearing, flag-waving, nose-to-the-ground, good, decent Americans. Nor are they shit-for-brains ‘Mericans, hoarding their guns and clutching their Bibles and yearning for Drumpf to make American great for them again. They are just people who love and lose and question their choices and take comfort—and occasionally rebel—at the humdrum, commonplace miracle of life and the unfortunate postscript buried in the fine print of that miracle.

The play centers on a couple who meet at an unnamed restaurant, go home and knock boots, and wind up starting a family. We meet their parents, their kids and their grandkids in a series of vignettes that cover 50 years. It’s an eight-person cast (not including the unsung hero of the play, Kelly Ehlert’s server), with every performer playing multiple roles. The play’s central couple begin as young adults (played by Ben Green and Angela Griswold), morph into thirtysomethings (Robert Foran and Jennifer Ruckman) and are finally seen as an elderly pair (David Carl Golbeck and Karen Webster). But throughout the play, the actors switch roles, playing not only the couple at various stages in their lives, but also their kids, grandkids and parents. It all sounds terribly confusing, if not downright incestuous, but it’s not. The play’s brisk pace and steady direction, courtesy of Jocelyn A. Brown, keeps things moving at such a clip that you don’t have time to question why this person is now their own child or parent. You just buy into it, something made even more effortless by a uniformly excellent cast, including Dylan Barton and Abbey Lutes, who play three generations of children.

Nothing hugely dramatic happens in The Big Meal, just living, dying, mourning and celebrating. There are no lofty speeches, characters mired in existential angst, or epic journeys or descents into the depths. These are just people, not particularly bright or clever, not particularly saintly or sinnerly. Sure, some drink a bit too much, stray from the ties of matrimony or work too much, or nag too often, but there is nothing heroic or even that memorable about any of them. Which is one reason why LeFranc’s play is so powerful. By the end of the 80-minute production, you can’t help but feel keenly for every member of this family unit, whether buried in the ground or still huddled around the table. By relaying the course of a quite ordinary family with ordinary lives—punctuated by moments of tragedy and celebration—LeFranc tells a quite extraordinary story, one that might compel you to hug your own family just a little bit tighter or miss the ones who’ve gone even more.

The Big Meal at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; Thurs., May 19, 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m. $40-$45.

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