“Notice how we gravitate right towards this room,” an aggressive sister comments to her brother, sweeping her fingers across the slick reflected surface of their dining room table.
It’s not just a territorial dividing of family relics that occupies this space hallowed with ghostly memories and the dust of tradition in Seattle Pacific University’s current production of The Dining Room, but also business deals, masters’ theses, birthday parties and romantic affairs.
The antiquated hub of family life is both the setting and the moniker for this season’s student-directed one acts, running March 4–8 in the studio theatre at McKinley Hall. Seniors Erin Barber and Molly Warner each direct one act of The Dining Room, which pieces together a series of self-contained vignettes taking place in a dining room — or rather, many dining rooms.
“It’s more about the people in the room than the room itself,” Warner said.
And indeed, the set, designed by professor of theatre Don Yanik, is nothing if not minimalistic. A sleek dark-stained table sits solidly on a swirling crimson and gold rug, anchored by four upright chairs alternately toppled by running children and grasped in sweaty frustration.
The play opens with a real estate tour, which showcases a brilliantly preserved dining room, the kind the reminiscent client grew up in, but would soon be the receptacle of clean laundry and pet projects.
Quick on its heels is a crisply-ironed family scene, the father aloof and patronizing behind his morning paper and twice-strained orange juice. His wife is angelically bathed in morning light, his children admitted entrance only on conditions of decorum and no wise cracks.
Next, the same table is graced with the modern monstrosity of a typewriter, clacking away in a systematic mutilation of polished tradition and the achievement of a freeing master’s degree.
And the tables literally turn in the final scene of the first act as an ambitious architect plans the demolition of a psychiatrist’s formal dining room to make room for a lobby and offices importantly separated by a sound-proof door. By the end, it’s the architect reminiscing about his childhood in a room just like this and the doctor planning to send a bill for services.
The scenes are performed with a sparse six actors, which results in an almost-revolving door of costume changes and character roles.
“We worked a lot on changing physicality,” Barber said. “From old to young and back again.”
Yet the abrupt changes in age are achieved with an impressive and fluid grace by these actors, whose experience ranges from first-time performers to veterans.
The second act introduces an entirely new cast and opens with a scene taut with energy and emotion. A mother hosts a child’s birthday party, and the propriety which received its preliminary cracks in the preceding scenes takes its first heavy blow — a love affair between parents of different children communicated through smoldering across-the-room glances, a sparking touch and whispered plans.
It’s as a young college student exploits his aunt and her fine place settings for anthropological study that the theme of The Dining Room is most explicit. Brandishing a pistol-handled knife, the aunt portrays a society’s moment of revelation that its structural rules and traditions — be it dinner parties, formal breakfasts, marriages or dishware — no longer have the same power. Yet this is not a condemnation.
“The play captures a vanishing culture,” Barber said. “But there’s no good guy or bad guy. It’s not black and white.”
Even in scenes dealing with a changing and expanding sexuality — a middle-aged woman comes out to her father and there are rumors in an all-male club — the importance and allure of tradition is given its due. The woman returns to the dining room of her past to sort out her future, longing to repeat the memories of her childhood.
The choice to perform The Dining Room is especially poignant this year as the theatre department retires its former chair. Since he joined the faculty 29 years ago, Yanik has designed costumes and sets for over 170 SPU productions, not to mention 150 professional productions and several world and U.S. tours.
Yanik performs a cameo appearance at the end of the show — a measured and methodical elderly gentleman discussing plans for his funeral, a role he first played 21 years ago. Gesturing to the set he designed, Yanik bequeaths a legacy of tradition and excellence — the dining room’s table and chairs.
“Don’t be sentimental,” his character reminds a reluctant son as a production and an era fade to black. “I’m leaving the room to you. It’s the best thing I can give you, by far.”