LuEster Stage at the Public Theater
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
Runs through December 4, 2016
Teaser: Richard Nelson returns to the Public Theater with the final installment of his three-play cycle about the Gabriel family.
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There are few plays that hold a mirror up to life with such intensity as Richard Nelson’s three-play cycle The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. His third installment in the series, Women of a Certain Age, opened at the Public Theater (at the LuEsther Stage) on November 8th, fittingly coinciding with the presidential election. Theatergoers who see it during its brief run won’t regret the time they invest with the down-to-earth Gabriels of Rhinebeck, New York.
For the Johnny and Jill-come lately, there’s a convenient backgrounder in the program, courtesy of the playwright, that sums up the first two plays in the series, Hungry, and What Did You Expect? Happily, each play in the series stands on its own, a proverbial diamond-in-the-rough that needs no fellow to show its brilliance.
In Women, the playwright brings before us, once again, the Gabriel family who live on South Street in Rhinebeck, a bedroom community of New York City. It is now a year since Thomas Gabriel, a novelist and playwright of some reputation, has died, at the age of 64. As the play opens, six Gabriels—Thomas’ widow Mary, his mother Patricia, his brother and sister, George and Joyce, George’s wife Hannah and Thomas’ first (and now divorced) wife Karin—are preparing dinner, a traditional shepherd’s pie with home-made cookies for dessert. Mary is the overseer and chief cook who delegates this and that culinary job to those willing and able to help in the kitchen.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the meal preparations, the family members talk, in turns, about the presidential election and their personal matters. Will Patricia have time to vote before the polls close? Will the election results put Hillary in the White House come January? Will they be able to remain in their own house in spite of their “reversed” mortgage and outstanding loans? Will Patricia be forced out of her retirement home and be living under their roof again? Political and personal issues thread through their conversation as naturally as autumn wind weaves in and out of the branches of trees.
Sure, you could say that the play has no real plot. Outside of the presidential election, which serves as the major backdrop for the play, there’s little action save that the Gabriels are painstakingly preparing dinner and talking about their shared experiences in the past and present. Even so, the dramatic tension is always palpable here. Nelson has written a play in which the joys and sorrows of six fictive characters are vividly limned and uncannily speak to us in the here-and-now. Much like a Chekhov work, little happens on the surface in Women. But Nelson, who directs this production, captures the minds and hearts of a struggling American family at a momentous time in history.
Nelson is no stranger at the Public Theater. If you think back a few seasons, his Apple Family Plays became a big hit at the Public. Like the Gabriels, the Apples hailed from Rhinebeck, New York, and audiences tenaciously latched onto them, following their lives, in all the particulars, in this four-play cycle.
Returning to Women and what makes it hum, the ensemble acting is superb. Maryann Plunkett, as the widow and retired doctor Mary, is quietly powerful. Roberts Maxwell, as the matriarch Patricia, is well-cast as a senior failing in health but still concerned about her family’s well-being. Jay O. Sanders inhabits Thomas’ brother George, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker, with an equal blending of manliness and sensitivity. Meg Gibson, as Thomas’ first wife Karin, succeeds in her role by having her character not impose herself on the clan but simply be there with them on this election evening. In the supporting roles of Joyce and Hannah, Amy Warren and Lynn Hawley clearly hold their own.
When it comes to the production values, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West’s rustic set, abetted by Jennifer Tipton’s natural-like lighting, is just right for evoking this New York hamlet south of Poughkeepsie. Hilferty’s costumes are suitably plain, each having that lived-in look that clothes acquire after many years of use.
I refuse to reveal all the satisfying things tucked into Women out of fear for being a spoiler. But this work is a true theatrical achievement that is in step with the times--and serves as a perfect capstone to Nelson’s three-play trilogy.
Okay, we might never be able to control the political winds that are constantly blowing this way and that across America. But we can surely be happily blown away by the Gabriels’ love and compassion for each other as they face the unknown future.
Through December 4th.
At the Public Theater (at the LuEsther Stage), 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan.
For more information and tickets, phone (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org
Running time: 1 hour; 45 minutes with no intermission.