Family dinners can be intense — especially when the members of said family are keeping major secrets from each other. Such is the case in writer/director Tony Blake’s Sunday Dinner, in which members of a Catholic family grapple with the nuances of morality. Now at Theatre 40, the production stumbles in some aspects of its execution, but manages to captivate through a strong, tension-filled plot.
Married couple Eddie (John Combs) and Rose (Sharron Shayne) have invited Michael (James Tabeek), a priest of the Catholic Church, for a family dinner following the death of Michael’s grandfather. Michael intends to announce that he has left the church, but before he can, he is bombarded with his father’s “confession.” It seems that Eddie has forged a document which will deprive his widowed sister-in-law of a share in the proceeds from her late husband’s house, leaving them to be split two ways instead of three. For this transgression, Eddie hopes to receive absolution from his priest son. The situation forces Michael to wrestle with a choice between loyalty to family and revealing the truth. Each character, including Michael, harbors secrets unbeknownst to the others, and the result is a chaotic exploration of accountability and morality, to one’s family as well as to one’s conscience.
As playwright, Blake has successfully crafted lively realistic characters and given them heightened stakes to sharpen the conflicts between them. As a director, he succeeds less well, however, undermining much of the play with poor staging. Many conversations — even the most intimate — are spoken between two actors positioned distractingly far apart given the realistic drama they are enacting. The dining scenes are sabotaged by the arrangement of table and chairs which inevitably leaves one character with his/her back to the audience. Key moments are subverted because the audience is unable to witness the reactions of these characters.
The standard of performance is also widely uneven — the less competent actors speak their lines without convincing emotion. But Tabeek is exceptional as Michael, the family member most conflicted by his moral dilemma, and his performance elevates the entire production. His silences are as compelling as his monologues — although his stellar performance is a double-edged sword, as his exceptional work further highlights the unfortunate weakness of the other ensemble members.
Yet, despite its flaws, Sunday Dinner is redeemed by the strength of its story — so tense and vibrant that the audience’s attention remains captivated through its end.