‘The Big Meal’ a big deal at Timber Lake.
By Sue Langenberg

Second production of its 54th season at Timber Lake Playhouse opens “The Big Meal” tonight. As rousing as first show “Hairspray,” this one shifts gears into an engaging piece.
Special guest director Chuck Smith comes to the summer stock theatre to take it on as he enjoys his 14th consecutive season as a perfect vacation from the city to work with extraordinary talent in the boonies. His 22 years on the artistic staff of Goodman Theatre in Chicago has earned him special praise in multiple plays including “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” which he also directed at TLP.
Likewise TLP has enjoyed Smith’s tenure along the way. Artistic Director Jim Beaudry notes recent successes that include a moving “Tuesday’s With Morrie” and musical “Working.” Smith’s quiet-giant rehearsal style is most effective to bring the best of each actor and script.
He notes that he was immediately taken by a production of “The Big Meal,” which had a world premier in 2011 at American Theater Company in Chicago, then Off-Broadway in 2012. The play is therefore patently contemporary in a time when the feel of the ‘80s is yet considered contemporary.
Moreover, its playwright Dan LeFranc is just getting started with a flow of creativity that we should all watch closely. His career debut has already cranked out some nine plays with intriguing titles as “The Fishbone Fables,” “Cat Gut” and “Bruise Easy.” Lauded an “emerging” talent, he is already making a mark in the theatre with a Helen Merrill Award and a Whitfield Cook Award among other prestigious nominations.
“The Big Meal” takes action around a restaurant table throughout several generations of family that gathers with menus, bond with each other, fight each other, and everything else in a tumultuous recipe that began with a complicated relationship between two lovers that marry. In less than 90 minutes of continuous action, sudden shifts of characters at various junctures of life reveal a rich cornucopia over the table like a mirror of ourselves and our families. Boisterous humor and snappish jabs (with some adult language) between various family members develop an ongoing dysfunctional baggage surrounding births, rites of passage and inevitable tragedies.
This baggage takes on an ominous life of its own as we clearly identify ourselves in the same situations. Guaranteed, you’ll find your own life, your own siblings, your own parents somewhere. As the scenes unfold the audience, in fact, seems to sink into their own dysfunctions while the characters seem oblivious to theirs.
This play tells it all with eight characters, (and a non-speaking waitress). It may seem complicated at the onset, but each actor plays several roles as time marches on. There’s always an Older Woman, Middle Aged Woman, Young Woman, Girl, Older Man, Man, Young Man and Boy. So each actor may slip into another role or another time in an instant from the upstage tables to the main table. Therefore, each actor must step up to a seamless flexibility at the drop of a hat. That kind of talent always finds a path to TLP.
Returning favorite Judy Knudtson plays Older Woman with ease, Brigitte Ditmars and Paige ManWaring carry on the complications of relationships, Brian Pauley and Matt W. Miles are the ideal models of stubbornness that we all love to hate as well as Cullen Rogers who tries to escape the madness at various junctures. Boy Jaguer Heier and Girl Victoria Kuzlik round out the family as the charming (and sometimes not so charming) youth soaking up all that happens around them.
Great play to chew on, “The Big Meal” opens tonight and runs 11 performances through June 27 at Timber Lake Playhouse. All evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. (No Monday show June 22). Saturday, June 20, Sunday 21 and Wednesday 24 matinees at 2 p.m; Group rates available. Tickets go fast. TLP is located at 8215 Black Oak Road, in the boonies of Mt. Carroll.