IT'S BEEN a long time since I've seen as many weepy adults as I did at opening night of Artists Repertory Theatre's season opener—and yes, I was one of 'em. Anyone prone to tears is well advised to pack a hanky for The Big Meal; it's a smart, sentimental show, well produced, and its emotional aim is unerring.
The show is a sort of tableau vivant, featuring scenes set over several decades in the lives of one white, middle-class family. Meals are the organizing principle here, but this is not a "foodie" play; rather, the dinner table is isolated as a frequent site of family celebration and conflict.
The show's starting point couldn't be simpler: A young couple meet and make a family. Subsequent generations march along, through childbirth and divorce and illness and all of that banal, momentous life stuff. The couple, their parents, and their children are played by four paired sets of actors: Britt Harris and Andy Lee-Hillstrom as young adults, Val Landrum and Scott Lowell as middle-aged parents, Allen Nause and Vana O'Brien as an older couple, Harper Lea and Agatha Olson as children. Character traits are passed from generation to generation, subtly; and handed from actor to actor, too, as they switch off roles to portray the same character at different ages.
There's nothing particularly exceptional about this family or about the events that unfold, which is a strength of the script: It finds emotional resonance in life's most basic movements.
There were more sniffles than chuckles from the opening night crowd, but the script is shot through with humor that O'Brien and Landrum are particularly adept at excavating. The use of sound and silence is masterful: Sometimes the stage is abuzz with noise, with family members talking over each other in fullness and clamor; at other moments, the silence stretches out, stark and lonely.
The Big Meal is the first show of the first season under the helm of Artists Rep's new artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez, so it's worth looking at what, exactly, he's done here. Crucially, this is a great show for its actors, who are called upon to play different characters at multiple points in their characters' lives. (It's nice to see that there's a meaty role for departing Artistic Director Allen Nause, who is excellent, by turns, as a racist grandfather, a proud dad, and a doddering old man.) It's sentimental without being treacly and broadly accessible, thanks to the universality of its themes, without pandering or pulling its punches. (Spoiler: Everyone you care about is going to die some day! Some sooner than others. Call your grandmother.) In other words, it's a canny choice for a season opener, selected for maximum appeal to both actors and audiences, and it pays off.