Communique: WASP Culture In Decline In "The Dining Room" | Big Dawg Productions

Nov 3, 2017

Playwright A.R. Gurney, who just passed away this year, wrote a series of plays about the decline of WASP culture. One of these plays that received a lot of attention is The Dining Room, presented by Big Dawg Productions through November 19th. Listen to actor Randy Davis (of admitted WASP heritage himself) talk about the show above, and read our extended interview below. 

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00 at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street.  Tickets are available online or can be reserved by leaving a message at 910-367-5237. 

Gina: Apparently there's 50, over 50 characters?

Beth Corvino (l) & Vanessa Welch in "The Dining Room"
Credit Big Dawg Productions

Randy: There are over 50 characters. Everyone plays...I think at least some place seven, I play nine myself. And one scene just flows into the next, a couple of lines before one scene ends, the next scene will come on and start it. And then the whole thing just flows intoo this tapestry. Gina: And the centerpiece is this dining room table. Randy: A dining room table it all takes place in a dining room and the play is about the death of the WASP culture in the United States. And it was written in 1982. And it's all about the early to mid 20th century and that was when the decline of the wasp and the 60s and the 70s and the new generations that were coming up.

Gina:Now when we say WASP of course, we're not talking about the flying biting things we're talking about-

Randy: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Gina: And I actually read somewhere that the W initially was probably "wealthy" because Anglo-Saxon already means white. And so it's kind of redundant, but it's about the upper class of people with "British stock."

Randy: Absolutely. And there are many servants in different scenes because of course this group of people didn't do much for themselves. But there are also scenes of different generations. For example a daughter who wants to move back home because now she is getting divorced which is of course unheard of back in the day and she's gotten involved in a number of different relationships and her father having trouble dealing with the new world that is around him.

Gina: It's easy for us now, I think that we might tend toward toward mocking the wasps. But there is a quote from the playwright Gurney, A.R. Gurney, he said wasps do have a culture traditions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, particular signals and totems we pass on to one another- he says "we" because he was a wasp.

Randy: Absolutely.

Gina: Hey says, but the WASP culture or at least that aspect of the culture I talk about is enough in the past so that we can now look at it with some objectivity, smile at it, and even appreciate some of its values. And these are the values that Gurney says about the WASP culture. There was a closeness a family, a commitment to duty, to stoic responsibility which I think we have to say weren't entirely bad. When I read that quote from him, I thought well you know maybe it's not just a kind of stereotyping to the point where we're just making fun of this culture.

Randy: No, Absolutely. There are definitely things about the culture that are being made are missed these days like that central family values and things like that. Everybody in the cast plays multiple roles but we also play multiple generations, everyone plays a 5 year old plays an 80 year old. And it's interesting to play the 80 year old that is still stuck with all those values and then play a teenager afterwards that's rebelling so hard against it in the next scene.

Front left, counter-clockwise: Beth Corvino, Emily Gomez, Jay Zadeh, Vanessa Welch, Randy Davis, Josh Bailey in "The Dining Room"
Credit Big Dawg Productions

Gina: It is a comedy.

Randy: It is a comedy. There are sentimental moments but overall it is fairly ridiculous at times but at the same time, do people walk away being very dismissive of that WASP culture? Randy: I don't think so. I don't think that the waspy characters are necessarily the bad guys quote unquote in every scene. There are some that the new generation are the ones that are tough to deal with. So you see it from both sides.

Gina: Tell me about the characters you're playing. A couple of them.

Randy: Well see, I play Tony who's coming to visit his aunt Harriet. He is in Amhurst and he's doing a school project on the eating habits of various dying cultures, and he has suckered his aunt into displaying all this stuff so they can take pictures and then make fun of it later at school. And it comes out later. My favorite role is Standish. And it's a scene that's done very melodramatically, and he gets a phone call, his brother has been insulted at the club and now he must go down there and fight the man that did it. And it's hilarious. It's one of the funniest scenes at the show.

Gina: Tell me who else is in the show.

Randy: My wife Vanessa Welch is in the show, Beth Corvino, Emily Gomez, Josh Bailey, and Jay Zaida are the other actors, three men three women.

Gina: The dining room table is the centerpiece in every scene…it was constructed in 1898.

Randy Davis: Right.

Gina: Which I think has a you know significant little bing to Wilmington that is really interesting to me. I mean who knows, maybe our Gurney knew that but I doubt that he did. Probably not.But still 1898, the time period when that dining room table was created.

Randy: And some people look at the show as a single dining room table and how it's moves all these different families throughout the years. Some people take on the shows just different dining rooms all over the country.

Gina: And what's your feeling about the dining room table?

Randy: In the first scene, there's an agent showing a prospective buyer the dining room and he looks at it and he goes, you know I don't know if I need a dining room, all my last dining room table was used for is to hold laundry as it's folded. And as a family of four right now, two young kids...we eat there some, but a lot of the time we eat on the run and everything else. So it's it holds laundry as well. It's multi-functional I think these days.

Gina: OK wait, you're talking about your real life. You just just said Randy Davis doesn't need a dining room table…

Randy: Well, it’s something to hold the laundry and occasionally we can wrangle the kids enough to sit down for a meal. But sitting down for hours....I have one character that's an architect and he flashes back to his youth at the dining room table. He talks about the endless meals, waiting to begin, and waiting for dessert, waiting to be excused. I don't think that's part of my family's dining room table anymore. It's usually how fast can we shovel it in because we all have things to do with the evening and everything else. Some of those values may be gone in today's society or grasping for its last straws possibly.

Gina: Doing this play, have you thought about the dining room table and thought, gosh, we should eat together more as a family?

Randy: I do. I do. I think that a lot and especially, take the time to properly sit down and in between courses which are unheard of these days. Sit down and discuss people's days and how things went. And yeah I don't think anybody does that near enough these days. I know we don't.

Gina: That's really interesting. Are there any racial issues in this show?

Randy: There is one character. He's a grandfather whose grandson is coming to ask for money and he talks about having to give all his money away to all his grandchildren. And then when he's finally done they're all going to come back. But it's not going to be him at the dining room table, it's going to be some other fellow of some other race because he's going to have to sell it and all these other races were coming up to take his place. 

Gina: And some of the scenes are from the perspective of the servants?

Randy: Yes. There is a scene where a maid who has been with his family for decades has finally gotten to the point where she doesn't want to do domestic service anymore. And it's her and her small charge coming to grips with the fact that he's losing the person that basically raised him, because back then it really was the servants that spent most of the time with the children as opposed to the parents. So the scenes are really just all across the board.

Gina: When the audience walks away, what kind of unifying thing will kind of gel together from all these scenes?

Randy: I think that sense of family and that sense of connection that people get when they actually, as one of my characters puts it, gather around a table with a number of intelligent people having good food well cooked and served properly. Just to sit down and you know actually have real conversation and enjoy this dying thing that is the dining room.   

Gina: Randy, are you a wasp?

Randy: I was definitely raised a wasp and I say I'm a reformed wasp. I was the oldest son of the oldest son and heir to the Davis fortune so to speak...not really. I rebelled and became the black sheep of the family because I couldn't stand the thought of being a wasp my whole life, which has definitely affected some of the characters I would say. But I do know how to properly set the table.

Gina: That's good. It's good to know that.