By Erika Urivez
Opening night of “At The Table” from Actors’ Theatre stunned the audience with a real-life depiction of gathering around the table with friends or family and watching as issues of society either get discussed or hastily brushed off.
The ensemble play is set in New York where a group of six friends meet together for the weekend and are without their phones, forcing them to put down their screens and have real conversations. As the conversations progress and the jokes are continuously made, bigger topics relevant to present-day society surface throughout. These topics include abortion, women’s issues, LGBTQ rights, drugs, alcohol, relationship and family problems.
Director Fred Sebulske discussed why “At The Table” is relevant to being produced in the environment of Grand Rapids Community College.
“It’s a play about kids who met in college and now, 15 years later, they’re still trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives and what things have meaning to them,” Sebulske said. “One of the things they want to do is sort of keep the relationships that they formed in college and keep them now and that’s both some ways easy and some ways difficult because they’re different now.”
The four college friends, Elliot (played by Jared Douglas), Nate (played by Kyle Los), Stuart (played by Nate Reynolds) and Lauren (played by Bianca Washington), come face-to-face with what happens when they invite their other friends from different social groups to spend the weekend together. As they all begin to discover different aspects of each other, they begin to question themselves and what actually makes them diverse, if at all.
Sebulske elaborated on what the audience can expect from the play.
“It’s the kind of show that makes you think and gives you things to discuss afterwards, and that’s the perfect Actors’ Theatre kind of show,” Sebulske said. “We don’t do big musicals, we do shows where people have to listen and think and understand and it’ll stay with you for several days after you’ve seen it.”
“At The Table” was chosen by the Play Selection Committee who reads around 60-80 scripts every year. They thoroughly assess each, making sure they follow their mission of producing plays that are innovative, thought-provoking, challenging and high quality theatre.
Once the cast sat together and read through the play last year, actor and Executive Director of Spectrum Theater, Kyle Los, explained how relatable it was for everyone.
“(The selection committee) was like, this is what we just experienced with our families over Thanksgiving or whatever,” Los said. “Like everyone talking on top of each other, everyone sort of talking about issues that they have but always like with a joke. You know the way that we do, we hide the real issues by making jokes about other things and eventually those things start eating at us and then explodes. That’s kind of what happens in the play.”
Jennifer Jelsema, who plays the character Sophie, explained how the play shows different perspectives based on one’s own life experiences and how “it may be difficult to understand other people’s perspective if you haven’t experienced it yourself.”
“It raises questions without kind of preaching to you or giving you an answer,” Jelsema said. “It just makes you think. It makes you think about the way people experience life.”
Jonathan Wheeler, who plays the character Nicholas, expressed why he became fond of the play.
“We have a chance to talk about topics that people may find uncomfortable, but they need to be talked about such as race or women’s rights,” Wheeler said. “These are topics that are very relevant to our world nowadays, especially the social climate, so I think that it’s important to bring these topics up and although it might make people uncomfortable, this conversation needs to be had.”
After the show, it was clear that the actors and directors achieved their hopes of making people think and reflect on themselves. It had the audience full of laughs, with looks of shock, close to tears and ended with a standing ovation. Outside the auditorium, people gathered and stayed after to discuss with one another their thoughts on the play.
Kelly Horton, 18, of Zeeland, said she thought the play was “emotionally intensive” and “true to life.”
“It just is what’s happening right now,” Horton said. “Like politics and with everything happening, it’s in our entire society. I don’t think this was like a political play or anything like that. I think it was a real life play because I think every single person has experienced even a sliver of that, like the racial divide that was in there and even with marriage equality and stuff like that. It was all about how people experience things and it was just so, so relevant.”
Also in the audience was former board member of Actors’ Theatre, David Hatter, who reflected on his own friend group through the play.
“What I saw in this was directly a reflection of the lack of diversity within my own life,” Hatter said. “I see within that, what I just saw within my own friend group, like when we have conversations. We were kind of comparing like, ‘okay, this is kind of like David, this is kind of like Matt or Dixi.’ But at the same time I’m looking at that going… ‘that’s not a diverse table. It’s just not.’”
With him, was his friend Dixi Pline, 34, of Grand Rapids, who added to his statement that “we can only fill so many of those roles because our group is not very diverse, so we’re missing some of the key voices.”
Before the play began, Sebulske had explained how viewers may feel about who is at their own tables.
“In many, many ways as you watch the play, you’ll see that people are either at the table or not at the table, and that’s the difference between whether they get to vote on what’s going to happen or whether they don’t,” Sebulske said.
Hatter reflected on the same idea when he faced the reality of who is at his own table and why that may be.
“The reality is, do I spend time with people I have different opinions with?” Hatter questioned. “Do I welcome those people into my group? And even if I do, do they stay or do I run them off like they did Nicholas?”
“At The Table” is scheduled to perform at Spectrum Theater, located on 160 Fountain St. NE, at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and Nov. 15-17, as well as at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11. Ticket prices range from $24-$28 to the general public and $10 for GRCC students. For more information regarding the play and ticket purchases, visit the Actors’ Theatre “At The Table” page.