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The Dining Room

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your rumpled reviewer seems slightly out of place at the stately Elmwood Heritage Inn. A beautiful historic property tucked away at the end of a long, curved driveway off busy North River Road, it's an atypically fancy setting for yours truly.

Walking up the front steps on a dark winter's night, I felt a bit like a doomed minor character in the opening minutes of some classy haunted house movie. The warm, welcoming interior quickly dispelled any such ominous notions; but the evening was full of phantoms all the same, courtesy of ACT's new production of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room

Gurney's first big success, this 1982 script epitomizes his speciality: satirizing and celebrating the well-to-do WASP culture in which he grew up. Set in an elegant traditional family dining room, the play features eighteen oft-overlapping scenes played out around, atop and even under the venerable dining room table. 

Each scene offers a different set of characters in a different time period, vignettes spanning decades and generations. These scenarios flow surreally into each other, sometimes playing simultaneously. As one character unwittingly-yet-aptly puts it on another topic, "It's as if we didn't exist. As if we were all just... ghosts, or something."

All 55 of Gurney's ghosts are portrayed by six quick-changing actors, each playing characters of widely varying ages, circumstances and personalities. Deftly directed by able ACT staple Terry Pratt, this versatile sextet includes Dylan Gaudet, Corin McFadden, Noah Nazim, Barbara Rhodenizer, Suzanne Wilkie and Teresa Wright. 

It's a uniformly solid, remarkably nimble cast. Ever-masterful ACT mainstay Rhodenizer shines as an officious, guilt-mongering mother, a boozily jaded teenager and an operatically outraged elder aunt, while multi-faceted McFadden excels as a detestably icy martinet of a father, a gleeful child, a bitter old man and more. 

Younger cast members Gaudet and Wilkie round out the cast skillfully, sometimes in younger parts — like Gaudet as an amusingly blunt anthropology student or Wilkie as a scattered, newly lesbian ex-housewife trying to move back in with her parents — and sometimes capably filling parts well beyond their years, like Wilkie's sad, unnerving turn as an old woman losing her memory. 

Local reporter Wright is returning to the stage after a long absence, but the only hint of said absence is its mention in the show's program. Wright's naturally cool poise helps her slide smoothly into the skins of Gurney's upper crust creations, and she also plays well against type in parts like a gloomily taciturn maid or a boisterous child. 

The uniquely talented Nazim, meanwhile, does some of his best work. Always a vivid stage presence, his occasional over-the-top tendencies are largely absent here as he shows impressive range, quiet charm and nuanced restraint, helping craft some of the production's best moments, like a sweetly romantic encounter with Wright or a funny, poignant father-son scene with McFadden. 

The 56th character in the show is the dining room itself, which ACT is staging in multiple venues: smaller, intimate spaces like the Elmwood Heritage Inn and the Haviland Club, and a more conventional theatrical run at le Carrefour Theatre. With a delicious cast making a meal of Gurney's funny, thoughtful script, Pratt's fine production is worth a look wherever it's playing.

Performances of The Dining Room take place at Le Carrefour Theatre February 17 and 18 at 7:30 pm and February 18 at 2 pm. Tickets are available at www.ticketwizard.ca.

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