Fall Arts Guide: Family Drama
Not a lot happens in the Apple Family plays. In each of Richard Nelson's four dramas, the Apples (three sisters, one brother, an uncle, a boyfriend) gather in the same room of the same upstate house. They eat, they sing, they talk. A dog gets loose in the first play, but that happens offstage. A few characters leave to vote in the third. Every so often the phone rings.
On the level of sensation and action, these works rival new iterations of the tax code. Yet the writing is so minutely observed, the acting so devastating truthful, the portrayal of American life (white, well-educated, passably liberal version) and its politics so current and acute that these plays have staggered audiences and critics since they first opened at the Public Theater on the evening of the 2010 midterm elections. And it's raised excitement for the fourth and final installment, Regular Singing, which begins previews at the Public on October 22.
Even the Public, Nelson admits, never intended to stage plays like these. Lolling in a chair in one of the theater's disused offices, Nelson, an avuncular figure in a tan blazer and plaid button-down shirt, describes an early meeting with the Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis.
Eustis, Nelson recalls, asked him to write "a big play about Afghanistan"—big ideas, big themes, big cast. Nelson gave the proposal some thought and replied two days later, saying: "I have an idea about a family in Rhinebeck. They sit around a table and talk."
"It's certainly not what I was aiming for," says Eustis in a phone interview. But trusting his long history with Nelson and their prior collaboration on Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum, he committed to an opening night date before a word was written.
Dates are particularly important to the plays, as each takes place in real time on the day it opens. So just as the first play, That Hopey Changey Thing, described the mood amid the midterm elections, the second, Sweet and Sad, coincided with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the third, Sorry, with the 2012 presidential elections.
To have watched Sorry on opening night was to have seen an audience struggle desperately not to check their phones for the latest exit polls. But soon they gave themselves over to the language and the acting. There were tears and shouts and applause when the play finished. (Only then did everyone scramble for their devices.)
Nearly every drama theorist would argue that scripts this plotless, this sedate, can't also be this enthralling. But the Apple Family plays are, though even Nelson admits they won't please everyone. "There are people for whom they're like paint drying, like a nightmare," he says. "But other people say 'Wow, I've gotta lean forward and pay attention, and I'm going to be a part of this.' That can be thrilling."
In the author's note for That Hopey Changey Thing, Nelson described the play as "disposable," too enmeshed in its own moment to have any lasting impact. But he has come to believe that the scripts might speak not only to the travails of an individual clan, but also to the state of the nation, even as the family functions less as metaphor and more as mediator. These are voices that speak what all of us are thinking (politically, socially, morally), but few are saying. Yet the tone is inquiring rather than propagandistic, as when in Sweet and Sad lawyer Richard notes of economic turmoil and political gridlock, "I've never seen this country more brutal," and his sister Jane replies, "Is it 'brutal'? Maybe that isn't the word—maybe 'lost'?"
Still Nelson wonders just how meditative he can get. "I'll be very curious to know what people make of the whole," he says.
He'll find out when Regular Singing opens on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The earlier three plays will run in repertory alongside it, creating a body of work that Maryann Plunkett, who has appeared in each previous play, calls "so simple and so delicate."
If you see Regular Singing on opening night or near it, you may experience a kind of strange double vision. On the one hand, you'll know that you are seeing a play that has been written and rehearsed well in advance. On the other, you will believe, at least in part, that these characters are actually inhabiting the same time and place as you, responding to events as they occur.
This is a credit to the performers, most of whom have reappeared in each subsequent show, although Regular Singing and the earlier plays will feature two new actors, owing to scheduling conflicts within the ensemble. But it also reflects Nelson's writing process, which has him making changes practically up until curtain time, trying to achieve the greatest possible contemporaneity, even noting the current weather.
"For every single play I have written an extra page of lines to add in case it rains on the day," Nelson says. "So far it has not rained, but I'll have lines again about umbrella stands, about the porch."
To bring the audience further in, Nelson, who directs each play, ensures that sound design allows the actors to speak in conversational tones and that the stage lights illuminate the spectators, too, however dimly.
These techniques work to draw everyone together—actors, spectators, ushers, technicians—rendering us, at least for an evening, a single family. "You can't just stand on the sidelines," says Marian in Sorry, describing the chorus she has joined. "There is no audience. It's not for anyone. We sing with each other. To each other."
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