How does a family endure? Studio Theatre 2ndStage's The Big Meal is entirely preoccupied with that question, and curiously, its answer is found in an average-looking Ohio restaurant that tracks decades over hamburgers and spaghetti.
Although in this joint, the worst thing to see is your food. Playwright Dan Franc turns the act of eating into a somber metaphor for death, meaning that when a character's ''order'' is up, the waitress (Sarah Taurchini) appears – a symbolic twist on the Reaper – and the soon-to-be dearly departed chow down.
The Big Meal
The effect, unlike some of the Franc's other risks, is somber and profound given the context of Meal's compressed narrative. In 80 minutes, we watch a first date turn into dating turn into marriage and children. The kids have kids, then those tykes grow up and have kids of their own, too.
Which is to say, Meal demands a tremendous degree of directorial precision to work – and more often than not, Johanna Gruenhut pulls it off. But when she doesn't, when Franc's innovative cross-talking dialogue veers the audience from captivation to confusion, Meal stumbles on obstacles of its own design.
The cast of eight, to their credit, perform remarkably well under the circumstances. Each actor must pivot from character to character as years fly by: Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews, most notably, work through the perpetual struggles of adulthood with a refreshing, affective candor. Pay attention, though: Depending on the scene, they could be siblings or newlyweds.
If you can't keep up – and unfortunately, it's exceedingly difficult to do so as more and more characters are introduced – Meal's message will get lost in the details. But, perhaps, in a way that's a message in and of itself: The average American family, while timeless, doesn't require particularly memorable parts to be special.
Too bad I can't say the same of The Big Meal.