Here we are again on Election Day 2016, a day many Americans would be loath to relive, except for the obvious.
If you are to be born ceaselessly into the past, you couldn’t find better ballast than the six extraordinary actors who make up the cast of all three plays of Richard Nelson’s quietly exhilarating The Gabriel Plays: Election Year in the Life of One Family. Their sense of empathy and emotional truth are so keen you wish you had them in real life throughout a very long campaign year that culminated in an excruciating November 8.
On this day, the Gabriels assemble once again in the family kitchen and by the third play they feel as comfortable to you as neighbors, or even your own clan. Being the patriots they are, the Gabriels have already voted—and it is no surprise for whom this staunchly Democratic family cast their vote–all except matriarch Patricia (Roberta Maxwell, radiating both frailty and stubbornness) who is recovering from a recent stroke and is hearing and seeing things.
Now they must wait out what seems like the longest day of the year, but they don’t seem as hopeful since they say their votes were for “not him.” As with the other plays, politics and the reality of a newly unfamiliar nation run through the fabric of Women of a Certain Age, but do not dominate it with polemic or civic discourse.
Instead, in real-time the Gabriels try to figure out how to get through not this day—that would be too overwhelming—but this meal, this moment.
At this point, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West’s set (aided by the porch-light familiarity of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting) has become the audience’s go-to sanctuary and possibly the only place in the world that still makes sense to the Gabriels.
However, they are aware—and awaken us—to the plain fact that all they’ve built up and experienced, loved and counted on, could be gone by next year. The house is being sold by the mortgage company; they have sold everything of value; George (Jay O. Sanders) and Hannah (Lynn Hawley) stripped their son’s college fund and forced him to take out student loans. No one can afford to keep Patricia in the retirement community, so she will move in with George and Hannah.
It’s also almost the first anniversary of the death of Thomas, the prodigal son and apparently enchanting husband of Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor who remains grief-torn and angry at him for leaving her behind to contend with all this crap. She let her medical license expire too long and will substitute teach to make ends meet.
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Women of a Certain Age, Play Three, The Gabriels
Election Year in the Life of One Family
closes January 22, 2017
Details and tickets
Even the helpful and discreet Karin (Meg Gibson), Thomas’ first wife, is moving on. Although in a touch of Chekhovian comic conundrum, you thought she’d never leave, having attended Thomas’ memorial service in March and staying nine months.
Not the hand-wringing types, the Gabriels do what they do—gather strength in togetherness, no matter how long it lasts, and cook a meal. While rummaging through the house, George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren) finds old copies of Ladies Home Journal (which reveal that not much has changed about women’s rights and their place in society since the age of the Gibson Girl) and most importantly, an old Betty Crocker cookbook for kids.
They distract themselves by making a cheerful, nostalgic dinner—shepherd’s pie and cookies with paint-on icing. Joyce insists they make Jell-0 for a real retro childhood experience and is voted down. The mashing of potatoes, the decorating of cookies, all serve as a balm against fear and uncertainty.
The familiar thrum of their conversation lulls you as well—a rich composition of cooking instructions, the inescapable chorus of “What can I do?” “How can I help?,” and the illuminating side stories that naturally arise when one of the Gabriels remembers something about Thomas or eagerly shares something they found while cleaning out the house.
A soft strain of sadness runs through their actions and easy talk, as if we are witnessing this family gently coming apart. Joyce tries to get her mother to remember some good things, nice things and her attempts to please her mother and get Patricia to notice and praise her show the insecure little girl still lingering inside the middle-aged woman living in hipster Brooklyn.
There’s also an air of disappointment over the Baby Boomer generation for making such a mess we cannot fix. We were given so much by the Greatest Generation and in so many ways we have failed them and our children.
No time for self-pity for the Gabriels or for us. Late in the play Plunkett’s Mary, standing alone in the kitchen as firm-footed as a Eugene O’Neill heroine, asks herself “What are you going to do?”
That question pierces you to the core. What indeed is Mary or any of us going to do? Maybe that answer is as humble as just doing the next thing, then the next, because thinking too far about what’s ahead is too daunting.
Women of a Certain Age: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play tThree . 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.