Compared to Chicago or even to Iowa City, the Quad Cities' contemporary-theatre base is practically nonexistent. But that could change with the help of one of the area's newest drama groups. With only two staged plays under its belt, the New Ground Theatre Company is already living up to its name.
The company debuted this winter with Waverly Gallery and has also promised a strong and controversial lineup for the coming year. In the fall, New Ground will pair up with Augustana College Theatre to produce Rebecca Gilman's 1999 play Spinning Into Butter. Proof by David Auburn, Wit by Margaret Edson, and the new musical Journey for a Reason will also take the stage in the next year. But the company's most recent accomplishment is its current run of Donald Marguilies' 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends at Rivermont Collegiate.
Friends realistically chronicles the lives of two middle-aged married couples who have been best friends for at least twenty years. When one couple decides to divorce, the relationships that have been established over time are suddenly challenged.
With food as the center of conversation and the symbol of stability, Dinner covers all kinds of everyday relationships, between spouses, friends, and friends' spouses. The play brings to light the force with which one alteration in the lives of those closest to us affects us, too. As one character says, "You think you're on solid ground, then the earth cracks open." Thus is life for many in today's high-divorce-rate society. And this is also life for the play's couples, whose portrayals of the effects of divorce might hit close to home with many audience members.
The first couple is Gabe and Karen, who are spirited and caring, with a passion for travel and a skill for cooking. Tom and Beth, the pending divorcees, were never "meant to be," as the audience discovers, yet they have shared years together raising a family.
Though we watch Tom and Beth crumble, then rebuild, the most rewarding element of Dinner is the stability of Gabe's and Karen's marriage. Played by theatre veterans Pat Flaherty and Susan McDonald, the most poignantly beautiful interactions on stage occur between the two, whose characters have grown together and also have faced society's temptations. It's moving to watch Gabe and Karen, because they are the two that survive together and have the power to overcome life's obstacles. As Gabe tells Tom, "I cling to Karen, like an iceberg." This need to share and to give is touching, as we sometimes forget to reach out and sincerely connect with other human beings.
Tom, who displays the widest emotional range in Dinner with Friends, is played by Jim Driscoll, using vocal projection as his strongest tool. Lora Adams plays Beth, whose emotional breakdowns are handled well, though Flaherty and Driscoll always outweigh her stage presence.
Also noteworthy are the effectiveness of the intimate acting space the Rivermont Collegiate auditorium allows and the elaborate set pieces used by such a young company. The bed, kitchen set, and pillar backdrops are impressive to say the least.
Director Chris Jansen has combined a powerful script with some of the Quad Cities' most talented actors to achieve a performance that deserves recognition. Audiences should skip the appetizers and treat themselves to Dinner, the best dish on the table so far this season.
Performances of Dinner with Friends will be held at Rivermont Collegiate (formerly St. Katharine's St. Mark's) in Bettendorf through June 2. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances begin at 7:30, and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m.