The Dining Room: HMTC’s first live performance since COVID

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Emily Sun, Staff Writer

“And, the dining room,” Cat Mong (10) said as the Agent. With that, the Horace Mann Theater Company’s (HMTC) production of A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” launched into 15 vignettes with 43 characters, set around one table for six.

The four performances, which took place last Thursday to Saturday, were the HMTC’s first live, in-person stagings since the pandemic began in 2020.

“It’s been forever since I’ve been able to perform on stage,” Celia Stafford (10), who played Dora, a maid, and dinner party host Ruth, said. “My first thought was ‘oh my god, there’s actually a lot of people out here who all came to see it.’”

Seeing the audience react boosted Amaris Christian’s (9) confidence, she said. Christian, who played Mother and Kate, said there were some fumbles during the show, but mistakes give live theater its raw and real quality. “My friend was so nervous because she stuttered on a line, but it just makes you seem more natural. That’s how a normal human would respond.”

All the actors were nervous going into their first scene since it had been months since their last show in front of a live audience, Ross Petras (11), who played Arthur, Paul, and Gordon, said. “I remember pacing up and down the hallway before my first scene.”

“The most intimidating sight of that entire of the three nights was during the first performance on Friday as the Grandfather, when I stared Tom Kelly down the entire time,” Matthew Peeler (12) said. Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly sat right behind Peeler’s scene partner, Jah’si Eyre (10), who played his grandchild, Nick. In his other scene as Ted, another actor tried to make Peeler break character in every performance, he said. “I was just holding my breath like “don’t laugh, don’t laugh, don’t laugh.”

Mong, who plays the Agent and Ellie, waited outside of the Blackbox and cheered on her castmates before getting in the right headspace for her entrance, she said. “Right before I got on, I would take a deep breath and when I walk on stage, I’m no longer me, I’m just the character that I’m playing.”

The play’s director, Manager of the Department of Theatre and Dance Studies Jonathan Nye, chose the play for its themes and structure and because it was the last show he performed in college, he said. “It’s the place where people gather for their meals, but that tradition has slowly gone away, it’s a metaphor for the decline of a culture where we all come together.” The play’s non-linear format jumps through time to depict various “life moments” that circulate the same table, as if the characters are ghosts tethered to it, he said.

The HMTC offered Nye an opportunity to direct when he started at the school, but he was worried about whether students would audition, how the community would react, and what his creative vision would be, he said. He agreed to direct for the first time after the fall play slot opened up following former theater teacher Joseph Timko’s retirement.

Over the summer, Nye gathered inspiration for the staging, set, lighting, props, and costumes, he said. From September to November, he worked with the cast and crew to bring it to life, Nye said. “I enjoyed the experience 500% more than I thought I would, and I’m looking forward to doing it again.”

In one scene — in which Amaris Christian (9) plays Mother and Arushi Talwar (12) plays her daughter, Charlotte — the actors spent over 30 minutes determining how Talwar would push in her chair, Christian said. “It was so miniscule and it really showed me how much [Nye] cared about the play.”

Nye also allowed actors to experiment with their scenes during rehearsals and shows, which made for a more genuine performance, Mong said. She varied her actions in each show for her scene with Oscar Shah (10), who played her character’s husband Howard, Billy, and the Client. “There was a moment when I improvised taking off my [wedding] ring and slamming it on the table, which made for a very dramatic scene.”

Watching the show live and in-person made for a more communal experience, Bethany Jarrett (10) said. “You can be immersed in not only the acting and the story, but also the lighting and the atmosphere in the room of having the audience around you.”

It was rewarding for stage crew members to watch their efforts pay off, James Zaidman (9) said. He liked the scene where AJ Walker (12), who plays Harvey, plans his funeral with his son Dick, played by Eyre, because it walks the line between loss and humor, and because he hung the stage light that focused on them.

The cast warmed up backstage with typical “theater kid” activities, Christian said. “We take things so seriously at school, so it’s nice and refreshing to just come to the theater and be silly,” she said.

The actors prepared for roles with various techniques. “I imitated my brother, who’s about two years old,” Angela Jin (9), who played two young girls, Lizzie and Sandra, said.

Similarly, Peeler changed his voice and physicality when playing a young boy, he said. “I found some recordings of myself as a child and tried to make my voice sound like that, though it cracked six times before I got close to it.”

Some scenes were awkward because of the romantic tension, like Petras and Dalia Pustilnik’s (12) under-the-table exchange as Paul and Margery, Petras said. But, after over 30 rounds of rehearsals, the embarrassment wore off, he said. “We’re actors. That’s what we do.”

Even after the preparations, it was hard for Eyre to shed his nerves because all eyes would be on him when he walked onstage, he said. He calmed himself with an internal monologue: “You’ve prepared for this for months, you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason to be nervous.”

The final show was triumphant yet bittersweet, Christian said. “I was just thinking, ‘Why is no one else crying?’” she said. “I didn’t realize how quick it was gonna go by, and we were trying everything to get in every moment we could out of that Saturday.”

After the performance, the seniors presented gifts to their underclassmen, such as earl grey tea for Christian, a notebook labeled “The Communist Manifesto” for Serena Bai’s (10) progressive character, Tania, and weights for Eyre —a play on his line, “I need some buffing up.”

The juniors also wrote speeches and gifted roses to the seniors in the cast and crew. “Our stage manager Yunshu cried instantly, the second the speech started,” Petras said.

It felt surreal to receive the roses, Juliette Shang (12), who played Carolyn and Brewster, said. “In sophomore year, I remember watching all the juniors get roses for the seniors. It’s crazy that I’m a senior now.”

“I couldn’t control myself from crying because this show has been a huge part of my life for the last three months,” Jin said. The cast made her feel welcome in her first year at the school, like on days where she had four-hour rehearsals on top of assessments and Chris Smith (11), who played Psychologist and Winkie, brought brownies for the cast and crew.

Christian also said that the cast and crew helped her feel included and appreciated. “At the first rehearsal, I was really nervous because I didn’t know any of these people’s names, then AJ made this big circle and he said, ‘let’s all go around and say our names, pronouns, and our favorite ice cream.”

“It’s sad that we’ll never have all these people in another cast,” Jin said. The transitoriness of theater productions is tough, but she is excited to join future shows and meet new people, she said.

At the end of the play, all five seniors — Shang, Pustilnik, Talwar, Peeler, and Walker — sat around the dining table and raised their drinks to a toast. Their glasses clinked, the chandelier winked, and Walker delivered the final line: “to all of us.”