Warp-Speed Family Saga: Three Generations Pass by in a Flash in The Big Meal at Dobama Theatre

I once thought it would be a breakthrough idea to write a story without using any verbs. It would be different, I thought. And indeed it was. It was also awful, so I decided to slip in some verbs here and there, to help the piece along. Then, my story just became mediocre, and I learned my lesson.

The challenge when using gimmicks in writing is that they can jump up and bite you if you're not careful. The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc, now at Dobama Theatre, is a case in point.

The playwright's idea is to explore three generations of one family in a one-act play, with each of the actors playing multiple roles as the family procreates (and dies) over the course of multiple decades. It's a fascinating concept, and sparks it ignites early on are startling and engaging.

However, as delicious as The Big Meal is through the initial courses, it starts feeling heavy and obvious halfway through. And by not having the courage to stay committed to the fast-paced, family-saga-on-a-stick idea to the end, it limps to a fairly gassy conclusion.

But what a ride LeFranc, director Joel Hammer and a wonderful cast create at the start! Nicole and Sam meet and, through a series of scenes that are slam-cut together with no transitions, we see their courtship develop along with their individual characters.

This progression is both disorienting and wildly invigorating. And once you recalibrate your expectations, you are eager to see more of this family play out in hyper-drive.

Four actors of each gender, and representing four different age groups, play assorted members of the family as time passes. So Derdriu Ring and Tom Woodward, who play Nicole and Sam at the start, eventually play their own daughter and son when the kids grow up. And so forth. It's a theatrical relay race, and it's quite funny and touching for the first hour or so.

The young Sam and Nicole are pretty sure they don't want kids in one beginning scene then, in a flash, two rug rats (Emily Kenville and Ryan Vincent) appear. When they show up in their twenties they are played by Geoff Knox and Llewie Nunez. Then we meet the grandparents (Bob Goddard and Anne McEvoy), actors who will eventually play elderly Sam and Nicole, as well as others in their dotage.

If this sounds confusing (okay, delete the "if"), it really isn't. Thanks to the deft writing of LeFranc and precise direction from Hammer, you always have a pretty good idea who is talking and how they relate to the continually morphing family unit.

These scenes are played out in a restaurant setting, thus justifying the title and clarifying the metaphor of life as an ever-changing feast. So there is much to chew on as we observe the small crises and antagonisms of family life battle with the love and affection that runs powerfully beneath it all.

What is missing, of course, is any significant delving into the characters themselves, as you would expect to find in a more conventional play. And that's all right, since The Big Meal is going after a different sort of truth.

It seems, however, that the play lacks the courage of its own conviction in the last third of the 105-minute work. Instead of keeping the pace fast and furious, scenes slow down and we are invited to share in bathetic moments as older family members die or sit and reflect on their lives.

In short, the production wants to have it both ways—the quick-cut generational juggling act along with contemplative insights. But the playwright's time-compacting device, which works so well early, turns those slow and quiet moments at the end into maudlin interludes that just don't fit.

Even though it hobbles to the finish line, The Big Meal asks the audience to work for its supper, tracking the intersecting lives of these folks. And that, by itself, is a theatrical feast that can be very satisfying.

The Big Meal: Through Jan. 5 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.