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Theatre returns to serve up comical critique: The Dining Room

Driftwood Players' Dining Room performances start at Gibsons's Heritage Playhouse
A. Dining Room
Marilyn McVey, Tim Anderson, Melinda Oliver and Larry Musser onstage in The Dining Room.

Live theatre has returned to the Sunshine Coast with the Driftwood Players production of The Dining Room launching a run of eight performances at the Gibsons Heritage Playhouse on March 31. 

The two-act comedy of manners by American dramaturge A.R. Gurney is the first in-person show by the Driftwood Players since their rendition of Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) in 2019, shortly before COVID-19 shuttered the volunteer-led dramatic company. 

“Driftwood Players has always featured local amateur players, and audiences have appreciated seeing their friends and neighbours on stage,” said Dining Room producer Bill Forst. “In the case of The Dining Room, the situations will evoke humour and pathos as the scenes slide in and out of the decades of this household.” 

The production is directed by Mac Dodge, a veteran of numerous Driftwood Players productions, while Jeanne Sommerfield serves as stage manager. 

The play is set in a single dining room in the northeastern United States, and chronicles seismic changes to family customs and attitudes during the 20th century. In scenarios which are alternately comic and nostalgic, seven actors portray more than 50 different characters. (Dramatic disclosure: Coast Reporter’s Arts and Culture writer is a cast member.) 

“I have never been in a play where I’ve got a range from 87 [years old] to 12,” said Tim Anderson, who depicts a fading father figure as well as a giddy birthday party guest. 

According to Mary Beth Pongrac, whose roles include a libidinous divorcée and a doting maid, effecting lighting-quick character changes required special effort. “Playing multiple children and multiple ages has been the most challenging part,” she said. 

Scene by scene, The Dining Room serves up slices of life from the culture of middle-class white people as their sense of entitlement gradually frays—the result of increased social mobility and growing self-awareness about the pitfalls of prejudice.  

The play, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, was one one of several written by Gurney that depicted the decline of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ways of life by skewering its conceits with humour.  

In The Dining Room, a husband’s concern for household heirlooms blinds him to his wife’s desire for a full-time career. The punctilious hospitality of an elderly matron becomes the subject of anthropological study by her nephew. A family patriarch cautions his grandson about the perils of traveling the world, warning that in his absence “some Irish fella, some Jewish gentleman” may supplant the family’s position in society.  

American isolationism and xenophobia are firmly in Gurney’s crosshairs, but wrapped in linen napkins and lit by the fall of afternoon light from French doors. 

“I think the play is provocative enough and subtle enough that people are invited to talk about what happens in their dining rooms,” said Dodge. “Like the time they went drinking there, or the first time that someone came out [of the closet].” 

Rehearsals began in January, when it was uncertain whether public health orders would allow in-person performances. During three months of preparation, several cast members contracted COVID-19, which required extended absences.  

“As director,” said Dodge, “I thought this is going to be a real challenge. But there’s been so much support from the Driftwood crew—the props people, the costumes people, all the way. So I could concentrate on the performers and hopefully give them what they needed to come up with a good show.” 

"It's great to be back."

The Dining Room plays at the Heritage Playhouse with 7:30 p.m. performances on March 31, April 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. Two matinées are scheduled for April 3 and 10 at 2 p.m. Ticket details are at