As the play begins, the young Sam and Nicole (played at first by Andy Lee-Hillstrom and Britt Harris) meet at the restaurant where she works. From there, five generations of a family navigate life's joys and dramas as if in a time-lapse photograph, launching ahead weeks or years but always coming back together at the table. The details of their lives don't need to be recounted here: We've all lived them. The gatherings are joyful and grating and awkward and hilarious, just like family.
Artists Rep veterans Vana O'Brien and Allen Nause (who served as the company's artistic director for more than 20 years) anchor the eight-member cast masterfully. The actors play family members of a range of ages, gliding between roles with expertly adapted mannerisms. What could be confusing becomes fluid and fascinating to watch. As a young Nicole, Harris is neurotic and angry, while middle-aged Nicole (played by a delightful Val Landrum) develops a sharp-tongued wit and perpetually clutches a glass of wine. The character of Sam remains naive and good-humored but gains a noticeable weariness. The transitions are aided with deft effects—a shift of light or clatter of dishes signifying that months or years have passed.
And just like life, it all happens so fast. In 80 minutes, a collection of moments paints an entire family history—a feat both impressively ambitious and wonderfully simple. This is part of the reason that new artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez selected the play to open his first season at Artists Rep. In the play's program, he describes being moved by how The Big Meal expresses the very purpose of the theater—to encompass the human experience on the stage.
When O'Brien, playing a now-elderly Nicole, wonders aloud and mostly to herself "Where does the time go?" it is with a heartbreaking poignancy. Everyone we know and love will pass through our lives, often too quickly, and we ourselves will one day finish our last meal and leave the table.
SEE IT: The Big Meal is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays through Oct. 6. $20-$45.