Watching the media coverage of this election cycle often feels like we’re watching a surreal, if not downright absurdist, and seemingly never-ending play. In response, a trio of naturalistic, intimate, and graceful plays by Richard Nelson aims to bring audiences back to earth in the most human of ways.
In his newest works, the three-play cycle The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” Nelson fashions a clan that indirectly reflects the issues, concerns, and anxieties swirling around this campaign season by focusing on the everyday life of a single family. One by one the plays have been making their premieres at the Public Theater in New York City since February. The last of them, Women of a Certain Age, opens on Election Day, Nov. 8.
The works echo the characters in Nelson’s previous politically timed four-play cycle, The Apple Family: Scenes from Life in the Country, presented at the Public between 2010 and 2013. The “Apple” plays used historic and political events—the 2010 election, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Obama’s reelection in 2012, and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination in 2013—as backdrops for its domestic dramas. Each play in that series premiered on the day it was set.
For this go-around, the Public is presenting the “Gabriel” plays within a single year—an extraordinary commitment to an American playwright who is working in the epic form while tackling civic issues in the most personal of ways.
Though the presidential campaign swirls around the three plays, the focus is on the immediate concerns of the Gabriels as they struggle with the aftermath of a death in the family, the care of an elderly mother, the class divides in a changing community, a sense of identity, and the pressing economic realities which call into question whether they will be able to keep their home. The leading figures in the race to the White House are mentioned in the course of the cycle, not as starting points to a political debate but rather as relevant asides to the family’s internal ups and downs.
The last cycle may have been daunting, but, says Nelson, “This project was even scarier because we agreed to do the three plays with openings set all in one year. I’ve been writing and directing three new full-length plays over the course of 10 months.”
Both cycles are set in the now-trendy riverside community of Rhinebeck, N.Y., about 100 miles north of the New York City. But whereas the Apples are relatively affluent, the Gabriels are clearly struggling to stay in the middle class. They’ve lived in the town for generations and now feel marginalized, uncertain about its future and fate. But the two families have this in common: Both feel that something has gone terribly wrong with the politics of the country and that makes them feel disconnected, helpless, and more than a little bit scared.
The first work of the “Gabriels” cycle, the aptly named Hungry, takes place on the so-called “Super Tuesday” of the 2016 primary. It presents this once independent and now fragile family as yearning for some sense of stability as they see the community, and their country, become a seemingly unfamiliar land.The middle play, What Did You Expect, which just ended its run, caught up with the family following the political conventions as the Gabriels deal with a financial crisis and the increasing strain it places on all of them.
Both plays have been met with critical acclaim. The third play, Women of a Certain Age, runs Nov. 4-Dec. 4, and all three will run in repertory on Dec. 10, 11, 14, 17, and 18. The show will then head to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. in January, and is slated to play in Australia and Hong Kong.
Though Nelson wrote the first drafts of all three plays before the first production began, he is updating the works to reflect current events as they unfold, and how they might relate to the family.
But those expecting a political polemic should look elsewhere. Indeed, it’s not clear who the Gabriels are voting for. In some ways, the campaign is a distant event, though the issues the family faces —the great divisions in America and its resulting anxieties and uncertainties– lie at the center of the election as well
Nelson also directs the works, as he did the Apple plays, in a naturalistic style, with the audience getting the feeling of peeking through the windows and eavesdropping on the affairs of the family. There’s not an “acting” moment in sight with this impeccable, in-sync ensemble.
Nelson’s style and choices bring to mind Chekhov: the nuance and ambiguity of character, the significance of silences and listening, the little tremors of outward tension and inner terror.
These overheard conversations roll out effortlessly from the cast amid kitchen activity. In this cycle there’s a lot of food preparation, as opposed to the consuming of it, which was a signature of the Apple plays. Indeed, at first glance nothing much is happening apart from the making of meals and the idle family chatter that surrounds this commonplace ritual.
“We’re just talking to each other,” says actor Maryann Plunkett, who has appeared in separate roles in each of the cycles. “That’s not to say the conversations are unimportant, but there’s no espousing.” In this cycle she plays Mary, a retired doctor and the widow of a somewhat successful playwright who has recently died. “It’s not about putting on a show. You are just there. Present.”
So is the audience in the close quarters of LuEsther Hall at the Public.In What Did You Expect? (as perfect a title for this election year as one could find), the Gabriels prepare a picnic meal for some wealthy newcomers with whom the family is trying to make a connection that could help ease their financial strain.
The act of actually making something onstage—Nelson points to David Storey’s play The Contractor, in which a tent is put up and taken down in the course of the play—adds to the verisimilitude. “I’m grounding my play in action, in one of those elements that makes us human,” he says. “We do not mime cooking but do real cooking.”
In observing these everyday actions, the audience subliminally feels a part of the Gabriels’ extended family. One is tempted to help stir the pot of potatoes boiling on the stove. For this unmoored family, the concern is as much about identity—more than once a character asks, “Where do we belong, where do we fit in?”—as about place: their home, town, and country, and their feelings of loss and being powerless.As one character says, “People are scared. Everyone I know is scared.”
As Nelson puts it, the play is about people, not politicians.
“Imagine getting hit by a car a few days before the election,” he says, “and you’re in the hospital and your family is coming to see you. I don’t think your very first thought is the election. But it might come up. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but that’s one way of looking at this. Their lives have not been changed by the events of the day, but their feelings about themselves may have.”
Frank Rizzo is a writer for Variety, The Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, and the Hearst newspapers of Connecticut, among other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ShowRiz.