Remember when Election Day actually meant something? In my family, the adults ran to the polling place first thing and at night my grandfather threw a results party with shucked oysters and beer for the watchers as I dutifully wrote the latest statistics gleaned from TV on my playroom chalkboard.
The Apples are still those people. A true-blue liberal family living in Rhinebeck, New York, the Apples consider Election Day a sacred day. They believe in observances and remembrances, as evidenced in Richard Nelson’s expansive and intimate four-play The Apple Family Cycle. That Hopey Changey Thing took place during 2010’s election night, while Sweet and Sad showed the Apples respecting the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Both plays were superbly performed at Studio in 2013 and the cast and crew have reunited for the last two plays, Sorry, set on Election Day 2012, and Regular Singing, which has the Apples observing the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Director Serge Seiden skillfully leads a dream cast through these two plays that are distinctly American in its discussions of politics and liberty and shared national tragedies, yet Chekhovian in the tragicomic portrayal of family closeness and private heartbreaks.
Sorry begins at 5 a.m., in the Apple’s traditional dining room, a spare but tasteful arrangement of polished wood, sturdy chairs and a good oriental rug (set designer Debra Booth perfectly captures Yankee plainspoken style). The Apple sisters scrounge around for breakfast amid the detritus of last night’s dinner and wine—bossy Barbara (Sarah Marshall), fragile Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti), both teachers, and distracted writer Jane (Kimberly Schraf).
They’ve been up all night and awaiting the arrival of prodigal son Richard (Rick Foucheux) from London, the sole brother and family instigator, to help them carry out the onerous task of putting their uncle Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen) into eldercare. Once an esteemed actor, Benjamin’s failing memory barely sputters these days and he has become sexually inappropriate with his chief caretaker Barbara.
Sorry, like the other Apple Family Cycle plays, is mostly about eating together and the type of lively family conversation that involves talking on top of one-another, nagging, interrupting and epic noise. And what chatter it is, rich and sprawling, as the Apples go back and forth between politics and their sorry disillusion with it to the problems and epiphanies in their own backyard.
The dialogue swings between high-minded speeches and little truths blurted out. The Apples may be thoughtful, well-read and NPR-informed middle-aged adults, but they also quickly devolve into their childhood roles, tattle-tailing on each other, snooping, blabbing secrets and vying for supremacy in the family pecking order.
Throughout this palatable discourse, Benjamin wanders in and out, at once majestic and deposed, yet showing a bit of his old magic when he is urged to recite a letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover from Redding Gaol. Van Greithuysen, with his classical diction and noble bearing, makes this a shivery moment as he captures Benjamin’s command, humor and decline. He is also so masterful at the reality of a person with severe memory loss who cannot keep a thought in his head but are sharp as a tack when detecting emotions and mood shifts.
You also love the interplay between the sisters, beginning with Marshall’s witty and wry turn as Barbara, guilt-ridden and vulnerable over the decision to warehouse Benjamin but still being the overbearing schoolmarm we know and love. Her younger sisters serve as her Greek chorus and her co-conspirators, but also are women in their own right, especially caught-in-the-middle Marian, who in Pierotti’s nuanced performance, wavers between grieving over her daughter’s suicide and claiming her right to move on. Schraf is brisk and bristly as the scattered Jane, who can’t seem to finish a project and is always at loose ends.
As the princely Richard, Foucheaux expertly tempers the dichotomy of someone accustomed to filling a room with his vigorous presence with the whittling down of man facing fears and doubts over his marriage and career.
Regular Singing takes place during the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination as the Apples conduct an all-night vigil for Marian’s ex-husband Adam, who is upstairs dying of cancer. Downstairs, the family is doing the usual—gabbing over leftovers. Benjamin is home from the eldercare facility, taking his assumed role as fading patriarch.
Their usual conversation becomes poignant and alive as they share their reminiscences of that tragic November day, what it meant to them, and how it changed them and the nation as a whole. The most affecting scene is where Barbara has Benjamin read an old newspaper clipping, reporter Tom Wicker’s account of the assassination for the New York Times. As van Griethuysen reads in measured, sonorous tones, Marshall brings Barbara out of her everyday fussiness to become something extraordinary, exalted. As she explains the poetry of Wicker’s simple words and the breathtaking appropriateness of a comma, you can see all that is beautiful and pure and reverent in her. You’d also kill to have her as your teacher.
THE APPLE FAMILY CYCLE: Sorry and Regular Singing
October 28 – December 13, 2015
1501 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
Sorry runs 2 hours, no intermission
Regular Singing runs 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $75 – $86
Wednesdays thru Sundays
The closeness and simmering beefs of the Apples remain intact in this fourth play, but some things have changed. Marian seems to be at peace with her daughter’s suicide—not over it, certainly – what mother could be – but more tolerant of the pain. Richard has joined the Cuomo administration in Albany and the big job seems to have cut him down. He’s skittish, evasive and on edge—nowhere near the merry initiator of the previous plays. Jane is restless as always, but somehow grounded in the presence of her husband Tom (Jeremy Webb), an amiable actor who is trying to make the best of life in Rhinebeck.
Barbara has changed in subtle ways. Still a meddler and incorrigible worrywart, some of the play’s best scenes show her “translating” everything Benjamin says by pertly repeating it. But she seems less conflicted, surer as to her purpose.
With the other plays, you just want to lap up the conversation between the Apples and bask in the ebb and flow of this family. Regular Singing, on the other hands, feels talky and forced as the characters seem to stage big moments, such as everyone taking turns reading Barbara’s student essays about death and rehearsing for Adam’s funeral service.
More problematic is that Nelson doesn’t seem to know how to end the play, so there are many denouements thrown at the audience, none of them particularly resonant. The cycle grinds to a close rather than ending on a grace note.
The Apple Family Cycle: Sorry and Regular Singing by Richard Nelson. Director: Serge Seiden. Featuring Rick Foucheux, Ted van Griethuysen, Sarah Marshall, Elizabeth Pierotti, Kimberly Schraf and Jeremy Webb . Set Designer: Debra Booth. Costume Designer: Helen Huang. Lighting Designer: Daniel MacLean Wagner. Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan. Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel. Stage Manager: William E. Cruttenden III. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.