A brief taste of the last two Apples

Third Rail's abandoned project of producing four Richard Nelson plays about the Apple family in America gets a one-day reading of the orphaned final two. They're fine and wistful, in a fading Chekhov way.

From time to time in life, we meet people we like and would like to get to know better, but circumstances get in the way.

To an extent, that’s what happened for Portland theater fans who made the acquaintance of the Apple family. Four middle-aged siblings from New York state, the Apples —  plus an uncle and a boyfriend, for good measure — are the subjects of a  remarkable series of plays by Richard Nelson, which premiered between 2010 and 2013 at the Public Theatre in New York City. In 2012, Portland’s Third Rail Rep became the second company to plan productions of the full (though at that point yet-to-be-completed) four-play cycle, and that fall’s production of That Hopey Changey Thing introduced us to Barbara, Richard, Marian, Jane, Uncle Benjamin and Jane’s partner, Tim.

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Rebecca Lingafelter, Isaac Lamb, Maureen Porter in 2013's "Sweet and Sad." Photo: Owen Carey

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Rebecca Lingafelter, Isaac Lamb, Maureen Porter in 2013’s “Sweet and Sad.” Photo: Owen Carey

The premise was that Nelson was attempting a fascinating experiment in the contemporaneous relevance of theater. Working with the most impractical of deadlines, he was writing plays that would open (at the Public) on the very same day that they were set, marking major elections and anniversaries, examining issues of public concern through fictional private lives, offering a unique reading of the political temperature of the moment.

“To my knowledge, no previous works of theater have been topical in the resonant and specific ways of the Apple Family plays,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, calling them “a rare and radiant mirror of the way we live — and fail to live —now. What happens in these productions is both casual and momentous, as any day in a life is when examined closely enough.”

The promise was that Portland would get the chance to follow along on this journey as well, albeit with a two-year time delay, watching the same cast of actors portraying this set of characters as their lives, and the political climate so important to them, progressed.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Earlier this year, Third Rail decided to discontinue the series after just two productions.

“It was a combination of things,” Third Rail artistic director Scott Yarbrough begins by way of explanation. “About a year ago PBS announced that they were going to film all of the plays for broadcast when they were performed in rep at the Public. So that seemed like another avenue or resource for people to see the plays. And for us, they hadn’t sold as well as we’d have liked. For one thing, the plays are sort of antithetical to what we’re known for. They’re quiet, contemplative plays, more like character studies. Also, even though each play really does stand on its own, people were reluctant to come in on the third or fourth play if they hadn’t seen the beginning of the cycle. So tickets became more and more difficult to sell and the Winningstad is a very expensive room for us to work in.”

Instead of presenting the third play, Sorry, this fall at the Winnie, that slot was filled (and quite splendidly, as it turned out) by Will Eno’s Middletown.

Still, sound business decisions aside, it was a loss. The Apples were an entertaining bunch to watch. Well, more so to listen to, since the action in the plays amounts to little more than eating and clearing the table. The conversations — charged with the easy humor, low-simmering conflicts and abiding affection you might expect from close siblings — were deeply engaging, thought-provoking simply by showing regular folks puzzling over important questions, sometimes articulately yet no more certain for that. And, of course, we wanted to know how their stories turned out.

This past Saturday came a brief chance to get reacquainted with the Apples. Third Rail returned to its former home at the World Trade Center Theater for staged readings of Sorry and Regular Singing, the latter half of the Apple Family plays. Despite the dim box-office prospects for full productions, a core of Third Rail followers had expressed interest in seeing the cycle completed this way, and an audience of about 100 showed up for each of the readings, one in the afternoon, one in the evening.

So, where were we?

That Hopey Changey Thing was set on the day of the 2012 mid-term elections, and, featuring the Apples as examples of the embattled liberal ethos, was the most explicitly politically focused of the four plays, a worried response to a time of Tea Party ascendance. But it also grounded us in some of the family realities: the golden-boy status of Richard, a Columbia-grad lawyer viewed by his sisters with a mix of admiration and irritation; Uncle Benjamin’s post-heart-attack amnesia and Barbara’s challenges in caring for him; the family members’  geographical split between New York City and the little upstate town of Rhinebeck, where they gather in Barbara’s house.

The second play, Sweet and Sad, introduced an elegiac undertone, with its ruminations on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and in the emotional shadows Marian faces in the aftermath of her daughter’s suicide and the resulting dissolution of her marriage. Other questions began to emerge, about Richard’s choice between paychecks and public service; about the professional prospects of creative sorts such as Jane, a non-fiction writer, and her actor boyfriend. And there are hints and suspicions that Benjamin might really be, for some of them, not “Uncle” but “Dad.”

It surely helped to know that backstory, but the later plays likely offered plenty for Apple newcomers. After all, plot isn’t so important here as are the texture of family life, the wide-ranging observations, the glimmers of deep emotions and decades-old subtexts that show through in ordinary moments.

Saturday’s readings, directed by Brandon Woolley, used an approximation of the open living/dining room set up from the previous shows, with chairs upstage for the actors not in a particular scene, and Yarbrough seated at stage right, reading stage directions.

Jacklyn Maddux, who played Marian in the previous productions, no longer is a Third Rail company member and, according to Yarbrough, had a scheduling conflict that kept her from reprising the role on Saturday. In her place was Karen Trumbo, who, slender and dark-haired, is closer in appearance and age to the other sisters — Maureen Porter as Marian and Rebecca Lingafelter as Jane. Also returning were Michael O’Connell as Richard, Bruce Burkhartsmeier as Uncle Benjamin, and Isaac Lamb as Tim.

Trumbo relied on her script a little more noticeably than her cast mates, but otherwise things looked a lot like old times, so to speak, with all the other actors settling comfortably into the nuances of their characters, despite having had just a week to rehearse the two plays. O’ Connell (a tad mischievous, a tidbit smug, both qualities masking stubborn pain) and Burkhartsmeier (sometimes prickly, sometimes amiably oblivious, mostly just sunken into what’s left of himself) carved especially clear paths back to their character’s emotional centers.

(The company had five weeks of rehearsal for That Hopey Changey Thing and again in 2013 for Sweet and Sad. In an introductory remark Saturday, Yarbrough joked that much of it had been spent figuring out the timing to enable the actors to “eat food, speak your lines and not choke.”)

In Sorry, the time is Nov. 2, 2012, with President Obama up for re-election, but the once-heated Apples by this point reflect the dispirited mood of the country at large; they barely muster energy to encourage each other to vote at all, much less to argue about which side to favor (Richard has previously appalled his sisters by edging to the right). Disillusionment and decline pervade the play. The subtle narrative tension concerns a plan to move the increasingly disinhibited Benjamin to an assisted-living facility. The Apples seem to be wondering if decay is inevitable — in mind, body and body politic. And as always, this is to some degree a family matter. At one point, as the conversation has drifted  from the public to the personal, Richard stops and asks, “How did we get talking about our children? It’s election day.” Then, recognizing that he’s answered his own question, repeats, “It’s election day.”

So where does that lead us, except death? The time hook for Regular Singing is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Nov. 22, 2013. By this point, Jane and Tim have moved from NYC to Rhinebeck, Richard from NYC to Albany, where he has (perhaps somewhat cynically) gone to work for Governor Andrew Cuomo. But the clan is gathered at Barbara’s house again, this time for a vigil of sorts, with Marian’s ex-husband upstairs, expected to die soon of cancer. The play has shorter scenes and a brisker rhythm, yet amid the casual chatter are memory and loss, nightmares and ghosts.

In the kind of oddly lyrical grace note that Nelson studs all through these plays, the sisters read from musings about death, written by Barbara’s high school students: “I’m skeptical about any delineation made between people who are living and people who are then” — as though the distinction is merely a matter of time.

Comparisons to the plays of Chekhov have been made often in regard to these works, and Nelson tacitly acknowledges the connection in his subtitle for the forthcoming anthology The Apple Family: Scenes From Life in the Country, a paraphrasing of the subtitle to Uncle Vanya. (There’s also a direct reference in Sorry to the abandonment of the aged servant Feers at the end of The Cherry Orchard.) Perhaps the chief similarity is the way that so little seems to happen and yet profound change takes place, the cataclysmic, or at least conventionally dramatic, events occurring offstage, between acts. What we see is the day-to-day grappling with consequences, the hard work of making ends meet between emotion and meaning.

Nelson purposefully settles on an open-ended ending, leaving most of the plot’s long-simmering questions on the stove. But he doesn’t leave us wondering about the take-away message, telling us, in a brief post-script addressed directly to the audience, that although we spend some of our days apart and some together, “it is those days together that remind us why we live.

“Or maybe it’s how: How we live.”

 

 

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