KU Theatre tackles family, love and loss in ‘The Big Meal’

It’s been said that food brings people together. And while that’s certainly the case in Kansas University Theatre’s newest production, “The Big Meal,” gathering to eat also provides the catalyst for tearing loved ones apart.

The play, which debuts Friday at KU’s Murphy Hall, follows one American family over about 70 years and four generations, exploring their many trials and triumphs through one continuous, metaphoric meal at various restaurants and around the dinner table.

The drama unfolds as one couple, Sam and Nicole, meet as teenagers, fall in love and get married. As their family expands with children and eventually grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new characters are introduced and others, as in life itself, fade away.

Each time a character dies, the family gathers together for a meal.

“The meal is metaphoric for passing out of this existence,” says director Peter Zazzali. “It’s that vehicle to get at those family relationships, because oftentimes relationships are shaped in part by sitting down and sharing a meal, whether it’s at home or at a restaurant.”

If you go

What: Kansas University Theatre’s “The Big Meal”

When: Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14, 15, 21 to 22, and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 23.

Where: Murphy Hall’s Crafton-Preyer Theatre on the KU campus

Cost: Tickets are $18 for adults, $17 for seniors citizens and KU faculty and staff, and $10 for children. KU students can purchase tickets for $10 in advance or $15 at the door. Purchase tickets online, at KU ticket offices or by calling 864-3982.

The whole thing unfolds like a piece of music, Zazzali says, as cast members rotate on and off the production’s minimal set.

A 16-by-20-foot platform acts as the meal space, with three tables and six chairs that also move throughout the play. The whole cast is present on stage at all times, seated on benches to the side of the platform and stepping onto it whenever their character enters the action.

Without “conventional” scenes written into the script, the actors must suggest subtle “shifts” in time or place, Zazzali says.

“It can come in somebody’s voice or the repositioning of a chair in a theatrical way or the pounding of a glass on a table to punctuate a change in the location,” he says. “And likewise, when the actors come off the benches onto the playing space, it’s like imagining a full orchestra when the string section comes into play. It creates a sort of symphonic dynamic.”

The play’s eight actors play 15 different characters, representing Sam and Nicole at three different ages. Aside from adding a touch of gray to hair, the student actors mainly rely on “the power of imagination” to imply the passing of time, says Zazzali, who didn’t want to use aging makeup or white-hued wigs on his young cast.

While touching on milestones like marriage, childbirth and death, the production doesn’t reference historical events or popular culture. The costumes, likewise, “are as timeless as the play itself.” After all, a “standard pair of Levi’s jeans are as hip now as they were 50 years ago.”

Dating the characters, or the time period they live in, would only distract from the work’s universal themes, says Zazzali, who admits he was deeply moved by “The Big Meal” when he first saw it a few months ago.

Much like a character in the play, he too lost his mother to breast cancer — a heartbreaking event that happened to coincide with joy of his niece’s birth.

“The issues that are addressed in the play are presumably the same sorts of issues that our ancestors dealt with,” Zazzali says. “We love our children today the same way we did 80 years ago.”