Don’t write words; try to write people. Playwright Richard Nelson has written people— six ordinary people whose lives are no different from our own, whose stories are the same as our stories— and in writing these people, has taken everyday life, ordinary existences, captured them and made them extraordinary. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents The Public Theatre production of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. A trilogy of plays— Hungry, What Did You Expect?, and Women of a Certain Age— this vibrant breath of a family portrait is displayed before audiences in raw earnestness. Written and Directed by Richard Nelson, this evocative new work is the quintessential every-family, existing without spectacle or artifice. The Gabriels is an astonishing examination the human condition, the thing better known as life.
The only downside to the overall experience of The Gabriels is the physical breakdown of the plays when it comes to viewing them. Despite being three separate plays, they do not stand alone and should— if at all possible— be viewed in one go to preserve the underlying current of momentum that undulates within the plot. That said, with more than an hour between plays one and two and more than two hours between plays two and three, it becomes daunting to take them on in one setting only because the time between the shows feels unnecessary. Obviously, for logistical purposes, there must be a break between each show as each play is just shy of two hours in length and requires if nothing else a moment’s digestion to fully absorb and appreciate what has been experienced. Richard Nelson’s writing is exactingly perfect making it seemingly impossible to make cuts or revisions as each moment is an integral part to the one before it and after it and many others over the duration of each play. As there seems to be no judicious remedy to this minor inconvenience, and as it takes only a moment to reinvest in the story and action of the secondary and tertiary plays, this can be mostly overlooked.
Nelson’s writing is unconventionally subtle yet surprisingly versatile. There is a rawness, a naturalistic and earnest approach to the dialogue and to the execution of it as well. Nelson directs the piece with a keen sense of reality guiding his overall vision for the cycle. Conversations at times overlap as they would in real life, people talk over one another, nothing feels presentational. Nelson has transfixed the audience into the world of The Gabriels— in this case the family itself— as an invisible observer, a fly on the wall as it were, and the result is truly astonishing. Nelson’s ability to reach the heart of honesty in both character construction and dialogue exchange is commendable. Furthering still the enchanting magnetism of this trilogy, Nelson showcases everyday life, normal problems and situations and relationships, in their most basic form. There is no heightened sense of dysfunction, but rather an honest expression of imperfection that resonates like a glistening bell of average existence and translates gloriously to the audience.
The hanging tag addendum of the title, Election Year in the Life of One Family, is cheekily deceptive. Though the play itself does take place in the current 2016 election year, Nelson does an outstanding job of drawing the focus into their lives, reminding us all the political disaster that occurred all around us was not the three-ring circus from outer space that the media desperately needed us to believe that it was. For ordinary people, everyday people living their ordinary lives there were real problems— relatable issues and struggles— that were occurring and moving time forward. Nelson’s focus on this intimate instance of life in a family— The Gabriels— is so very simple it defies explanation in how moving and extraordinary it becomes.
Performed across a series of three plays— Hungry, What Did You Expect?, and Women of a Certain Age— six actors all come together in the kitchen of the Gabriels’ house on South Street in Rhinebeck, NY. Their central focus, in addition to their relationships to one another and the pinnacle Gabriel in absentia— Thomas— is the food. They are constantly cooking and preparing food. This is a unifying theme in all three plays, and is even referenced in the final play as a meta nod to acknowledging the playwright, that there ought to be a play where people are always just cooking. There are even some profound referential quotes, stating things like “the discovery of a new dish is more important to mankind than the discovery of a new star.” This seemingly mundane task is fascinating to watch; the way these actors invest themselves in chopping vegetables, cracking eggs, stirring things on the stove top, all becomes an intricate and glistening floss in this glorious web of a world they weave around themselves.
Scenic Designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West take great pains to provide a fully functioning kitchen set for The Gabriels. Though each new start of the three plays involves the ensemble bringing in the decorations, accoutrements, and other homey accessories— decorating the fridge with pictures, setting the cooking utensils here and there about the various surfaces— the kitchen possesses that same lived-in and quaint verve through every minute of the entire trilogy. A running sink, a stove that cooks, and oven that bakes, a fridge that chills, all of these subtle working details enlivens the experience of The Gabriels to a natural state of reality. Adding to this realistic existence, Sound Designers Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens make subtle musical selections to accompany the top and tail of each play and have the most sublime piano selections for the off-stage-never-seen playing that George, Joyce, and Patricia takes turns with from the front room. Despite the basic black-box setup, Hilferty and Ardizzone-West’s set, along with Lehrer and Pickens’ well timed audio cues, create the illusion that the dining room really does extend out behind the kitchen, the mudroom comes through to the forefront and that there is an entire rustic old house filled with charming memories existing beyond where our eyes can conceive it.
Nelson’s ensemble are the epitome of existing within the reality that he has constructed for them and a close examination will showcase that it is an openly relatable one to that of our very own. Families with everyday struggles, families dealing with loss, coping with strange factors, and having the occasional conversation about politics while traversing the vivid tapestry of memory that has flowed forth elegantly from Nelson’s pen. He has constructed these characters with such vivid believability it is hard to imagine that they are a fictitious family and not a dear neighbor or friend you’ve known for years, whose story you are recapping as you witness it unfold. The breaks and beats between moments and scenes are smart, allowing for just enough of an instance of time passing to settle into our minds before the next moment occurs; the pacing— despite the breaks between plays— is divine, never dragging or faltering.
Roberta Maxwell, who plays the matriarchal Gabriel, Patricia the mother of Thomas, Joyce, and George as well as Mother-in-Law to the other two, is almost excluded from the first play entirely, except by mention of the other characters. When she arrives, despite her brief appearance at the end of Hungry, it is apparent that she is quirky and deeply layered. Maxwell takes the character down the slippery slope of old-age with finesse and grace. Her memory fades, her mind is feeble, but never in a vein that nods even remotely toward being a caricature of someone in that condition. She is sparky and spunky, even in Women of a Certain Age, where she exists in her most dependent form.
Maxwell’s interactions with her both George (Jay O. Sanders) and Joyce (Amy Warren) are her driving moments, particularly the needling that spars and starts up between she and Warren’s character. Warren, as the out-man-out Joyce, delivers a powerful and grounding series of moments at the top of Women of a Certain Age, addressing the brutal reality of some disclosed parts of their family history, delivered with striking profundity and redeeming her otherwise familial abrasiveness that she so often presents towards the character of Patricia. Both Warren and Sanders take turns cracking wise and delivering humorous little lines, adding delicate sweeps of levity to the moment-to-moment life happening in and around the house and family. Sanders has a robust voice and holds his own in a house full of women, finding emotional release in the third play of the trilogy.
Hannah (Lynn Hawley) floats somewhat on the periphery of the family even though she is as deeply steeped as the other characters, existing almost in the auxiliary of the Gabriel family dynamic, despite being directly and currently married to George. Hawley plays a character who relishes in the simplicity of her character’s existence but never allows this basicness to flatten the character or make her work stagnant. Though shying away from conflict, until issues that arise in Women of a Certain Age, where everyone is together for election day and things have changed drastically from just two months prior in What Did You Expect?, Hawley develops of a richness in Hannah that is appreciated by all.
Karin (Meg Gibson) and Mary (Maryann Plunkett) are where much of the show’s subtle drama lies. Gibson’s character is the first wife of the in-absentia Thomas, while Plunkett plays Thomas’ third wife; the two find themselves under the same roof for nearly the entirety of the trilogy. Plunkett is the first and last character experienced from the beginning of the cycle through to its conclusion and the profound changes that evolve within her performance of Mary are striking. The catharsis she finds, little bits here and there, but ultimately at the end of Women of a Certain Age, is rewarding and deeply satisfying for both her character and the audience. As Plunkett’s character grows and evolves to accept grief and loss, Gibson’s character becomes more sure of her standing and place among the family, accepting her situation and her life as the play progresses. These two storylines feed off one another in a clandestine and almost unrelated fashion, which becomes beautiful as their tales are exposed.
A truly remarkable and unique experience, there are so many wonderful things to be said about the eight-hour play experiences, but rather than taking up eight hours of explaining them, the best thing that can be said is that the show is a must-see. It is best digested in a marathon viewing, giving the audience the best possible exposure to each of the pieces as they fit into the whole.
Running Time: Each play in the trio runs approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family plays through January 22, 2017 with the following schedule:
Hungry on January 10th and 17th at 8:00pm
What Did You Expect? on January 11th and 18th at 8:00pm
Women of a Certain Age on January 12th and 19th at 8:00pm
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family (the full three-play cycle) on January 14th, 15th, 21st, and 22nd starting at 1:30pm.