Studio Theatre The Apple Family PlaysBy Bob Ashby • Nov 28th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
The Apple Family Plays
Studio Theatre, Washington DC
$39-$75 (Plus Fees) (Discounts Available)
Sweet and Sad
Through December 29th
1:20 without intermission
That Hopey Changey Thing
Through December 29th
1:10 without intermission
Reviewed November 23rd, 2013
This is chamber music. There are moments when all six cast members in Studio Theatre’s production of the first two of Richard Nelson’s four-part Apple Family series — That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad — play in a unified ensemble. Then one voice predominates, with harmonious or discordant incursions by others. Then another voice picks up a similar or quite different melodic thread. There are crescendos and diminuendos; there are sometimes gradual and sometime abrupt changes in tone and tempo. This is very American chamber music, more Ives than Mozart, and, while posing unanswered questions, each piece has its own completeness.
Nelson’s plays focus on the intersection of the personal and the political, on how public events are reflected or paralleled in the interactions and emotions of an extended family. Each play is set on a day of national significance: election day 2010 in the case of That Hopey Changey Thing and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for Sweet and Sad. (The third part of the series, Sorry, occurs on election day 2012 while the fourth, Regular Singing, which opened last Friday at New York’s Public Theater, is set on the 50th anniversary of the John Kennedy assassination.) On each occasion, the members of the Apple family gather for dinner in the family home in Dutchess County, north of New York City.
They are a diverse and contentious lot. Barbara (Sarah Marshall), the eldest of three sisters, a high school teacher, is the glue who holds the family together, making room for others and trying to keep the peace. Her brother Richard (Rick Foucheux), a career lawyer with the New York State Attorney General’s office, is taking a better-paying job with a corporate law firm, apparently under pressure from his offstage, and universally disliked wife, Pamela. For this, Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti) attacks him as an apostate from the family’s Democratic Party orthodoxy. Relentlessly energetic Jane (Kimberly Schraf), a Manhattan-based writer struggling to finish an ambitious book project, brings her younger boyfriend Tim (Jeremy Webb), a mostly unemployed actor.
Long the head of the family, Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen) has suffered brain damage as the result of a heart attack, leading to what the characters call “amnesia,” a nearly complete loss of both long-term and short-term memory. Benjamin remains articulate, his acting instincts sharp, but he remembers almost nothing from one moment to the next. Alone among the characters, he is immune from — beyond, perhaps — the personal and political contentions of the day. Van Griethuysen gives a subtle performance, full of small gestures and nuances in facial expression, providing loveliest grace note in a production full of fine acting.
The plays brim with topical political and social discussion and debate (if That Hopey Changey Thing is still being performed 15 or 20 years from now, programs may need a lengthy list of footnotes), as characters hold forth on economic inequality, the politics of personal destruction, the nature of acting, youth suicide, the meaning of a culture’s manners and customs, the cynicism and perfidy of politicians, and a variety of other subjects. If there is any criticism to be made of Nelson’s excellent scripts, it is that the characters engage in more extemporaneous speechifying than one is likely to encounter at the average family dinner.
These are not plot-centered plays, but the characters do change over time. Marian, for instance, a strident, sometimes unpleasantly shrill, political partisan in the first play, is a deeply wounded woman in the second, having suffered terrible personal losses in the interim. Richard, defensive in the first play about his career change, in the second becomes more willing to talk about the pernicious effects of the gap between the rich and everyone else. One of the keynotes of Foucheux’s portrayal is the anger that underlays both Richard’s personal and professional lives, anger that does not diminish the intensity of his caring for his sisters. At political swords’ points with Marian in the first play, he becomes fiercely, and sometimes tenderly, protective of her in the second. Benjamin is increasingly dependent on others as the two plays progress. Tim gingerly navigates his way through the extended family’s emotional minefield in the first play — it is the first time he has met any of the Apples other than Jane — then becomes more comfortable joining in the fray in the second, while the strains in his relationship with Jane become clearer.
As well as being funnier, That Hopey Changey Thing is more explicitly about politics than Sweet and Sad. As befits a play on the anniversary of 9/11, the tone of Sweet and Sad is quieter, at times elegiac, as when Marian listens to a choral requiem or Benjamin recites a Whitman poem based on the poet’s service in Civil War hospitals. The country’s ongoing recovery from the trauma of 9/11 is reflected in the tentative beginning of Marian’s ability to cope with the sadness in her life in Sweet and Sad, just as the divisiveness of politics in recent years is reflected in the sometimes bitter disputes among the Apples in That Hopey Changey Thing.
It is deeply refreshing to witness plays in which characters, words, and the thoughts they inspire are at the center of things. No showy technical wizardry here: the set consists of a dining table, a card table, some chairs, and, behind the back wall, a realistic older kitchen. There are a few sound effects (e.g., dog barks in the first play), but they too are part of the plays’ realism. The lights change briefly between beats of each play, with somewhat warmer colors in the second play than the first. As a framing device, each play begins with characters setting the table and ends with the characters removing the dishes and tablecloth, leaving the set as it was before the play began.
Never forget that the Apples are a family. The history they share, the sometimes painful intimacy they cannot help feeling, the sentences they finish for one another, are part of an unbreakable bond, a small ongoing community that nurtures them. This is the source of the emotional power of the plays as well as the source of their overarching unanswered question: can the country, the larger society, find ties that bind and sustain in a time of division and violence?
- Richard: Rick Foucheux
- Benjamin: Ted van Griethuysen
- Barbara: Sarah Marshall
- Marian: Elizabeth Pierotti
- Jane: Kimberly Schraf
- Tim: Jeremy Webb
- Director: Serge Seiden
- Set Designer: Debra Booth
- Lighting Designer: Daniel MacLean Wagner
- Costume Designer: Helen Huang
- Composer and Sound Designer: Erik Trester
- Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel
- Production Stage Manager: John Keith Hall
- Technical Director: Rob Shearin
Disclaimer: Studio Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9963.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.