Large family gatherings may still be fraught as we sort out who's vaccinated and who's not. But being a fly on the wall for the generations of WASPs in A.R. Gurney's 1981 play The Dining Room might make you take a fresh look at family dynamics.
Possibilities Theatre Company's live Zoom presentation of Gurney's comedy of manners, directed by founder Melody DeRogatis, is their fourth production—and considering that they've all happened since the stay-at-home order last March, that's pretty impressive.
Full disclosure: I met DeRogatis when she was a junior at Lincoln Park High School and a member of the Cindy Bandle Young Critics program at the Goodman Theatre. The yearlong program brought together adult mentors from the Association for Women Journalists and girls in high school who were interested in theater and writing. We've kept in touch from time to time over the years as she earned a dual BFA/BA in musical theater and writing in 2019 from Drake University.
DeRogatis likes to keep busy: she's written around 40 plays by her count, as well as many original songs. In 2017, while still an undergrad, she appeared at Steppenwolf as "Sheena the punk rocker" as part of the band-within-a-show in How to Be a Rock Critic, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's portrait of the late legendary Lester Bangs. (DeRogatis's father is music critic Jim DeRogatis.) She's also worked as an actor and director for a number of smaller companies around town, including Hell in a Handbag and Accidental Shakespeare, and one of her day jobs is as an ensemble member of Imagination Theater, a touring children's company.
When the stay-at-home order went into effect, DeRogatis, like a lot of theater practitioners, found her plans tossed and gutted. But when some back pay from unemployment hit her bank account, DeRogatis says, "I was like, OK, I'm going to buy myself one nice thing. And originally I was going to buy a PlayStation. But then Lori Lightfoot was like, 'Hey, uh, I think we can do outdoor theater and stuff this summer.' And no one was really doing it. So I thought, well, what if instead of a PlayStation, we buy the rights to a play? So I did."
That play was Noah Haidle's Smokefall, which DeRogatis had seen at the Goodman during its first run there in 2013. (The company remounted Haidle's play—which also takes a look at family dynamics across the years, though with a more surreal aesthetic than Gurney's—in 2014. The 2013 production streams for free through the Goodman's "Encore" online series April 12-25.) Possibilities staged it outdoors at the North Center Town Square, with audiences capped at 25 per show and social distancing enforced.
"It was going to be just like a one-off project or passion project to help get a little bit of art back in Chicago for the summer," says DeRogatis. "And then it kinda got a lot bigger than I thought it would. And now we're a full-blown theater company."
Since that inaugural production, Possibilities has presented Free Space by Tara Meddaugh, about a young woman, her toxic mother, and what DeRogatis describes as "a demonic Bingo chip" as a Halloween show, which was done "half outside and half over Zoom, depending on the weather." They did an all-Zoom holiday show, The 12 Days of Holidays Festival, which involved a dozen different original works, including full-length pieces, one-acts, workshops of pieces in development, and a radio play. DeRogatis estimates that nearly 100 artists were involved in that undertaking.
The Dining Room, at first glance, might seem like a bit of a throwback. Gurney's gift for anatomizing the fall of the upper-middle-class caucasians of the northeastern United States is undeniable (he's sort of like the John Cheever of playwrights), but where does that fit in with Possibilities?
"I think for me as a director picking shows, I always find it important to pick shows that feel timely and connect to people, especially in a time where things feel so isolated," says DeRogatis. "So what I was thinking with The Dining Room, you know, we've been spending so much time in our spaces, our individual spaces, studio apartments, what have you. And I think that our spaces that we live in say a lot about us and they're our own little corners of the universe. And I was thinking about how my studio apartment has gone from like the place where I sleep, to my rehearsal room, and the room where I have big Zoom parties, and my classroom." (She began a new teaching job this past fall.)
She adds, "The Dining Room is interesting because the walls tell a story, right? It's all set in one dining room over decades and decades. So I was thinking it's kind of like a 'if these walls could talk' scenario, and I thought it would be cool if we explored the spaces we live in and what they say about us and how we might all be in these own little corners of the universe, and thinking about if there's a way to connect them somehow."
The entitled-but-embattled characters we meet in Gurney's play run the gamut from a conservative New Deal-loathing patriarch in the Depression to families wrestling with how to break up the dining room set of furnishings, if not the room itself, for changing lifestyles. Along the way, there are stories of infidelity, rebellious children, feminism, and closeted gay identity—while the "essential workers" (i.e., the household staff) keep the wheels running for everyone else.
That also made the play feel timely for DeRogatis.
"With the way things are politically and the climate we're living in right now, I feel that the pandemic went from being political to being a moral issue. Suddenly you see these people who have a lot of money and they're like, well, I don't need to wear a mask. And they live in these kinds of deluded worlds where they're not really caring about the greater good of people. They're just kind of focusing on themselves."
Possibilities has emphasized diverse casting in its productions, but for The Dining Room, DeRogatis notes that "We didn't want to take a person of color and put them in this role that puts them in a negative light. So we did go with a more WASPy cast, because we're making a commentary on this lifestyle."
As the company has grown, DeRogatis has added Zoey Laird as a coproducer. Laird, like DeRogatis, has a background in theater for young audiences, and that component will be part of the Possibilities lineup going forward. DeRogatis says their future plans include touring children's shows and a soon-to-be-named outdoor musical production this summer. And she anticipates that they will keep some online components going as well.
"The goal is definitely live theater," DeRogatis says. "I understand that I cannot dress up my MacBook Pro to be the same as going to the Raven or going to the Goodman. You know, I'm wearing my sweatpants and eating Ben and Jerry's, I'm watching a show on Zoom. This is not the theater, but the way we spin our shows to get people to come is we advertise it more as an interactive experience."
But whether online, outdoors, or (eventually) in a more traditional theater space, DeRogatis notes that their company name embodies what she has loved best about theater since she was a kid.
"I always say that theater is the closest thing we have to time travel because—you know the phrase, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. So you're sitting in a dark theater, everyone's dressed like it's 18th-century France. Everyone's talking like it's 18th-century France. No one's looking at their cell phones for those two hours. You are in 18th-century France."
And with The Dining Room, Possibilities lets us travel through time in one room. v