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Patt Rall: 'The Dining Room' hits the mark

The rebirth of edgy theater productions is enthusiastically endorsed by me and other people willing to support their efforts to bring well written but not necessarily well-known plays to the public.

Group Therapy Productions is the newest of these groups, and its second production, "The Dining Room" by A. R. Gurney, makes the mark. The audience was quiet except during quips by players who enter and re-enter with ease as they set the scene for the next character(s). Six actors sustain the action of 57 different characters as they enter and exit the dining room on the intimate space of the River Room stage; simple as an off-Broadway house.

Dan McColley, who directs and acts in the play, has skillfully succeeded in staging the story line by using the actors themselves to change the scenes easily from one family event to another.

The story starts with an agent "selling" the older, fashionable home to a man who will be moving into the town in the near future due to a company move. He is intrigued by the dining room, and as they leave to inspect the rest of the house, two sisters enter and discuss the sale of the dining room table; a scene that has happened to other siblings, mindful of what they will get of the family treasures. While they leave the room arguing, another family sits down to a breakfast in a scene where father is absorbed by the newspaper but still domineering, the children whining for attention and permissions.

Do you get the idea" Each scene follows the other with ease and keeps the audience's attention where it should be—a serious look at the demise of a vanishing social status—the White Anglo Saxon Protestant upper class graced with a cook in the kitchen, a maid to serve, a discussion of which prep school to attend and who is to pay for it.

Some new names have been added to the roster of players—Andrea Fricke lovingly remembering the chaos of a family of 14 around the table and putting that energy into her characters; and Joel Verschay, a graduate student in English at Bemidji State University, reminiscing about his grandparents who took him to his first play and their sitting around the dining room table savoring the Brie cheese.

Returning players like Vicki Stenerson, who enjoys a reputation for directing comedies for Bemidji Community Theater, smoothly moves from one character to another. She plays a lonely woman trying to attract the carpenter who came to look and repair the dining room table, using her comedic skill. Paul Conklin, a regular for BCT musicals, tries his hand at drama and is so emphatic in one scene (Final Arrangements) that tears flowed easily in the audience. The scene was not maudlin in the least, not easy to do, thanks to Conklin and his talent. Bridget O'Sullivan re-appears during the play as the real estate agent keeping the action on topic—the demise of family tradition within the upper classes. Her husband, Danny, is stage manager and he keeps the backstage on pace. Kay Sanders, who has not be seen on stage here in Bemidji for a while, plays her characters who range from a youngster enjoying her birthday party with friends to the mother of a family gathering for Thanksgiving. Once again, the audience comes to tears as mother, lost and locked in her mind, and the family singing to calm her because she loved music. The ploy did not work to the frustration of all.

The set pieces like the birthday cake with a slice out, showing the chocolate cake inside the beautifully decorated exterior, and the turkey, brown on the outside and stuffing bursting out, are so realistic that they had to be the work of Cheryl Winette, and they are.

I was so anxious to see this production because my East Coast background and expected to smile, laugh and enjoy the show. Albeit some productions do not make the mark, this one does, and we are grateful for their collective genius. I am thinking about going to see it again.

If You Go:

What: "The Dining Room," a play by A.R. Gurney

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Rail River Folk School, 303 Railroad Ave. SW

Cost: $12.50 for evening performance, $10 for matinee, $15 for Saturday evening closing night and reception.