ALAMEDA -- Theater students at Encinal High School are in the final stages of preparation for their production of "The Dining Room," A.R. Gurney's dramedy about the role of the formal dining room in American upper-middle-class society.
At the helm of the production is veteran drama instructor Bob Moorhead, who has been teaching at Encinal for 28 years. He chose to stage the play "in the round," a configuration in which the audience surrounds the stage. Originally written for six actors, his production features more than 20 high school students playing multiple characters ranging from kindergartners at a birthday party to octogenarians at a holiday dinner.
"As I thought more about the staging, I liked the idea of doing the play in the round, or more precisely, square. I see the audience as the walls of the dining room, and I like to give the students different acting challenges and experiences," he said.
After almost three decades on the job, Moorhead does not seem to have lost his enthusiasm for encouraging young actors to express themselves through theater. His favorite aspect of teaching, he said, is "the creativity of the students and the fact that many of them are willing to take great risks as artists."
At first glance, "The Dining Room" is not the obvious choice for a contemporary high school play. The acclaimed 1981 work examines the idiosyncrasies of what one of its characters calls "(a) vanishing culture ... the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) of the Northeastern United States." In a series of 18 vignettes, families from the famously insular group lament the decline of WASP traditions amid the shifting social landscape of post-World War II America.
In the years since Gurney wrote "The Dining Room," almost every sphere of American society has become more inclusive. Religious and ethnic tolerance is taught in most public schools; cotillions and debutante balls are widely mocked as vestiges of a bygone era, and white-only golf clubs are vilified as bastions of bigotry. Civil rights legislation and judicial rulings have forcibly stamped out overt forms of discrimination.
But these have been relatively recent developments. Throughout American history, families like those portrayed in the play dominated the military, academic and business elite. WASP networks were gatekeepers at the nation's top universities and served as incubators for the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The minimal but unrelenting qualification" for such positions "was to be white, Anglo-Saxon in heritage and Protestant in religion," said author Joseph Epstein in the book "Snobbery."
"If one was Catholic, or surely Irish-Catholic, or Jewish, forget about it; if one was black, don't even think about it," Epstein wrote.
It goes without saying that things have changed. The WASPs didn't actually vanish, and many of their descendants still hold positions of economic and political privilege. But they are not the force they once were. The play takes a voyeuristic peek into the subculture at a time when it was struggling with immigration, integration, feminism and other changes that presented a bold challenge to the deeply entrenched establishment. Even those occupants of Gurney's "Dining Room" who anticipated social change would likely have had difficulty imagining the world inhabited by Moorhead's current class of drama students. Most of the nation's new babies are members of ethnic minority groups. Women outnumber men in American colleges. Three female justices sit on the current U.S. Supreme Court, and all nine members are either Catholic or Jewish. And in the recent presidential election, the only Protestant on either ticket was also African-American.
Despite the stark contrasts between today's America and the one mourned by Gurney's WASPs, Moorhead believes the play has enduring archetypal themes that make it a worthwhile project for his students.
"At its heart, I think the play is about coping with change, and how that can be very difficult. Although most of the students at Encinal High have not grown up in a culture identical to that of Gurney, they can understand the relationships in the play: the mother feeling her daughter slipping away, the daughter coming home to an empty house because the parents aren't around, the father not understanding the problems of his daughter," Moorhead said.
It is these larger themes of intergenerational struggle, fear, and transition that Moorhead believes create a bridge between his modern-day students and the world depicted in Gurney's play.
Because both of the drama classes will act in the play, each performance will have a slightly different cast. Moorhead hopes that audience members will come back for an encore. Audience members who come to a performance may sign a sheet allowing them to return to subsequent performances for only $1.
"This might prove to be a problem because our seating is limited," Moorhead mused, "but selling out performances is never a problem a producer tries to avoid."
What: "The Dining Room" by A.J. Gurney; performed "in the round"
Where: Encinal High cafeteria, 210 Central Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 13 and 15
Cost: Tickets at the door, $7 general admission and $5 for students/seniors