Right now, “the room where it happens” happens to be the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, where Richard Nelson’s achingly prescient and intimate trilogy of plays The Gabriels pays a different sort, but equally electrifying tribute to the American ethos and spirit as the hit musical Hamilton.
Both works are steeped in history, challenge our deeply rooted definitions of what it means to be a patriotic American and are at once of-the-moment and startlingly timeless and familiar.
All three of The Gabriels plays take place in that 12-month major suckage of a year—2016—where the nation endured the gruesome and vilifying presidential election campaign that exposed the America everyone probably knew was there but did not want to own up to—ugly, cruel, intolerant and angry for change, no matter how rash and half-baked.
The safe harbor of the Gabriels’ kitchen serves as the setting for all three plays, a place of casual conversation and cooking in the town of Rhinebeck, N.Y., also the location for Nelson’s other multi-play saga, The Apple Family, which was lovingly and impeccably staged at Studio Theatre a few seasons back.
Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West’s set is at first glance as stripped clean as an altar on Good Friday—weathered wooden furniture, braided throw rugs and a well-used stove and refrigerator.
The actors walk in with baskets and trays and populate the space with kitchen magnets and photos, canister sets, knives, bowls, glasses and other touches that warm the space and make it come alive. That they imbue this simple task with such beauty is a testament to the virtuosity of the cast. Each and every actor is so present, so attuned to each other and such generous listeners you feel as though you are eavesdropping on your own family.
Want to go?
Hungry, Play One, The Gabriels
Election Year in the Life of One Family
closes January 22, 2017
Details and tickets
The Gabriels appear less well-to-do and financially secure than the Apples. Money issues, employment, health concerns and other instabilities rock this close family, who all seem to be slightly gobsmacked by the prospect of so much uncertainty in late middle age, when you are supposed to be settled and eyeing up a quiet retirement.
No such luck for the Gabriels, who, like many Americans are still feeling the hangover of the 2008 recession. Pensions, solid 401Ks, job security—these are relics of the past. In addition, George (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) are part of the Sandwich Generation, trying to fund college for their son while helping to support George’s mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), who lives in a crazy-expensive retirement home.
What do you do with the enormity of everyday life amid an increasingly unstable and hateful political environment? The answer is, you do what you can, and in the Gabriels’ case, they prepare a simple meal of ratatouille, pasta and apple crisp.
The occasion is a sad one. The eldest son, Thomas, a playwright, died recently from Parkinson’s disease. Earlier that day, the family gathered on a cold March morning to scatter his ashes on his beloved Hudson River. His wife Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, marshals the troops to help her, including Joyce (Amy Warren), Thomas’ sister who is a costume design assistant living in Brooklyn, and Karin (Meg Gibson), Thomas’ first wife, an actress trying to make ends meet with teaching. Patricia is not seen for much of the play, resting in the unseen living room.
As they sit at the big kitchen table, the chop-chop of vegetables and apples and the stirring of pots provide a soothing rhythm to the easy flow of conversation between siblings, punctuated by the careful interruptions of Karin, an outsider who makes herself oddly right at home—so much so she keeps postponing her departure.
The small talk is anything but. They speak mostly of Thomas, loving reminiscences that play over Mary’s handsome face like a treasured home movie. They also talk of the rich, who have invaded Rhinebeck with their privilege, their ignoring of the rules and their weekend homes that are more like palaces.
The Gabriels make fun of the “weekenders” and their distrust of Manhattanites in general, while shrugingly accepting that they serve them—George as a carpenter, Hannah as a caterer and Joyce as a fundraising assistant buttering up millionaires and billionaires to contribute to theater. “Rich people, another planet, a whole other universe,” Hannah mutters.
They also talk about politics and you feel a pang at their hopes of seeing a woman president in their lifetime, their near-brushes with the Clintons (Hannah waitressed at Chelsea’s wedding), and their adoration of Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived nearby. God, most of us were so smug, so sure of the presidential outcome. How could it be any different?
What begins to emerge are refrains that will run through all three plays that are lyrical in their plain-spoken urgency:
How can I help?
What can I do?
The chatter and the sounds of food prep ebb and flow naturalistically and also waken something primordial—hunger and the need to feed, nurture. When the going gets tough and you don’t know what to do first, there is something certain and right about reaching for a bowl, a skillet, a spoon and just start cooking. You show your love, your willingness to keep going, your need to fill that hunger the only way you know how.
Food. Family. Friends. Gathering in a circle to share a meal, to concentrate on nothing but the plate in front of you and the faces around you. Whatever threatens outside can just wait while you eat, feed your soul and hunger. That’s food. That’s theater.
Hungry: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play One . Written and directed by Richard Nelson . Featuring: Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren . Scenic Design: Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West. Costume Design: Susan Hilferty. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Designers: Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens. Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan . Produced by Public Theater . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.