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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE DINING ROOM (article first published : 2008-09-6)

DUT drama lecturer Tanya van der Walt has tackled the fairly daunting task of directing American playwright and novelist A R Gurney’s The Dining Room for a large cast of first year students from DUT’s Department of Television, Drama and Production Studies. The production is enjoying a short run at the Courtyard Theatre on campus.

As the title suggests, the focal point is the dinner table and what it means to various families and individuals over a passage of time. There are 18 short vignettes, showing – as the publicity material states - “a fading part of American society and offering a glimpse into the world of the WASPs of the late 1890s. Overall, it tells the story of the relatively short-lived culture of upper-middle class Americans, and the transition into a much more efficient society with less emphasis on age-old family tradition and more emphasis on so-called progress.”

The characters respond to the dining table in various ways. They either fall in love with the room itself, acknowledging the table as representing an era of elegant dining, or hate it as it invokes childhood memories of suffocating conversations or parental arguments. The table is respected by those who treat it with care and disrespected by others. A woman’s husband is horrified when she uses it to work on her typewriter. After raiding the booze cabinet when the parents are away, a youngster steps on the chairs and finds the table surface a convenient area on which to rest her feet.

The sketches flow easily into each other and often overlap, running through a variety of moods. There are over 50 characters in The Dining Room and, while some actors doubled in roles, this work is a perfect vehicle for a student production as it offers a wide number of characters at various levels.

Tanya van der Walt has directed her cast well and I was impressed with the standard of performances and focus although I would have preferred a greater degree of vocal projection. While this is an ensemble piece, certain performers deserve special mention. The ever-popular Menzi Mkhwane was a delight as the doddery grandfather whose family seem intent on milking him dry financially and Kirk Graham was believable and nicely underplayed as his grandson. Tall and elegant Haseena Hans astutely handled the wife whose love-life is more than complex! Nhlankanipho Manqele took two roles but I particularly liked him as the son who is tasked by his grandfather to carry out his careful and minute plans for his own funeral. Sheraé Ramdeen was a gracious Aunt Harriet proudly showing off her antique silver and crockery while Senamile Zuma was a delight as the confused grandmother.

Those who played children were amusing and lively without being caricatured, although care must be taken not to pull focus from the main dialogue. Those in the critical roles of the maids effectively provided the links from one scenario or time space to another.

Apart from its entertainment value, this production is worth seeing for Sue Donaldson-Selby’s set. She has utilised the full space of the Courtyard stage and transformed it into a refined dining room, with a skilful sense of panelling, the impression of a highly polished wooden parquet floor, tall windows with long drapes, elegant chairs and a long dining table.

A word of congratulation needs to go to the backstage crew for a professionally-handled production. With the set designed as it is, there can’t be much space in the wings for the extensive number of props, let alone actors. Apart from one moment of “noises off”, no untoward sounds intruded.

The Dining Room has one more performance on September 6 at 19h00 at the Courtyard Theatre, Mansfield Road, DUT campus. There is secure parking at Gate No. 4 opposite the Courtyard Theatre. Tickets R15 at the door. – Caroline Smart




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