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One of the exquisite rewards of Women of a Certain Age, and there are countless, is that while the play takes place on Election Night 2016, when it premiered, and was being fine-tuned up until a few hours before its first public performance, it provides a reprieve from the muck of politics. It’s a kind of healing balm, if you will, from the toxicity of a U.S. presidential race that was nastier and more divisive than any in memory. The return to reality — after writer-director and minimalist magician Richard Nelson’s exemplary cast had taken their well-deserved bows on opening night — for many of us was like the shock to a comfortably warm body of an ice-cold plunge.
But the 100 minutes spent observing this fine-grained family portrait is no ordinary kind of escapism. It’s an interlude swollen near to bursting with sorrow and comfort, with losses absorbed and yet-to-come, with crushing disappointments but also with stubborn strains of humor and humanity.
The play doesn’t ignore the inescapable issues of an all-consuming election that, long before Nov. 8 rolled around, had already begun to seem like some medieval torture designed to test our endurance and break our spirits. Yet the beauty of Nelson’s writing is its ability to touch on those issues with subtlety and elegance. There are no agenda-driven discussions of the candidates and their respective platforms. Rather, there are seamless plot points and casual references sprinkled through conversations in which subjects like race, class, healthcare, jobs, education, the economy, gentrification and income disparity surface as very real concerns, entirely integral to the fabric of the Gabriel family’s world. Even the significance of a young person’s first time voting in a presidential election is woven into the dramatic texture.
Subtitled The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, this play cycle began at the Public Theater in March with Hungry and continued in September with What Did You Expect? It follows Nelson’s earlier experiment with the form in The Apple Family Plays, a four-part, real-time drama that debuted between 2010 and 2013 (later aired on PBS), in which the American political landscape is viewed through the prism of a liberal middle-class family in Duchess County, N.Y. The Gabriels live in the same town as the Apples, and like that family, their hopes and anxieties reflect those of a changing nation with stinging poignancy. Each play in the two series has premiered on the night when it’s set, adding trenchant topicality that never feels like a gimmick.
In conventional dramatic terms, very little happens in Women of a Certain Age. One year after the death of novelist and playwright Thomas Gabriel — the unseen figure whose presence looms large throughout the trilogy — his widow Mary (Maryann Plunkett), her late husband’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), their brother George (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) gather in the kitchen of the old family house to prepare a special dinner. Thomas’ elderly mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) has been retrieved from her assisting-living facility home for the occasion. Also present is Thomas’ first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), a teacher and sometime actress who was once an outsider but is now a fixture, renting a room above the garage.
The past is a tangible presence for this family, and the encroaching loss of the house, due to an ill-advised reverse mortgage taken out by Patricia, means they have been sorting through bureaus and trunks, turning up long-forgotten pieces of their history. That includes a 1910 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that sparks talk of the ways women have or haven’t changed; and Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, which passive-aggressive Joyce has decided will be the source of the evening’s menu. Again, in contrast to all the election racket outside, watching this group move around the cozy space — designed with unfussy authenticity by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West — making shepherd’s pie, pouring a beer or glazing cookies, is quite therapeutic.
But it involves piercing melancholy, too, most notably when Joyce — with the overbearing display of caring common to the truly self-centered — coaxes her mother to fill in the gaps in a box of her letters they found, written following the suicide of her beloved older sister when Patricia was just 13. Maxwell is a treasure of the American stage, and she can shatter your heart here with the simple words, “I remember.” Or, even more moving, their opposite, “I don’t remember,” whether out of genuine confusion or selective obfuscation. Paralyzed down one side since a stroke, Patricia is unfailingly lucid, observing everything that is said and done, but fatigue and distress make her frail. Just watching her as she tries, single-handedly, to slice an apple is a moment of ineffable sadness, the determined act of a woman refusing to be helpless in her own home.
There’s pathos also in Karin’s solitude and her brisk attempts to shrug it off when she prepares for a date while insisting that it’s “not a date.” Or in the revelation that Hannah has had to take part-time housekeeping work at a local hotel, not far from the mansion of a wealthy local family who once employed her husband’s grandmother as a maid. The dire financial situation of the Gabriels means that Patricia’s care may soon be unaffordable, and the college education of George and Hannah’s son is in jeopardy.
The play’s title is significant. While Sanders’ George is a warm presence, his body language around Patricia especially affecting, the character takes a backseat to the women, all of them middle-aged or older. And Hillary Clinton naturally figures as well, in passing comments on her chances of winning (the play’s action covers roughly 5 p.m.-to-7 p.m.) and in Karin’s verbatim theater piece, lifted from the Democratic candidate’s letters and speeches, dating back to her time at Wellesley. “I voted today for that Hillary,” says Joyce after Karin cites something from those years. She also relays the comment a young woman in front of her in the voting line made about Clinton: “I just hope Hillary knows that my vote is ‘not him.'”
Although the Gabriel plays, like the Apples before them, are inextricably political, they are also profoundly human and personal in ways worthy of comparison to the work of Nelson’s obvious inspiration, Chekhov. Not one character on the stage feels inessential to the drama and not a single actor fails to bring a lifetime of intimate knowledge to his or her fully inhabited portrayal. Whether you’ve seen all three plays or just this one, you will believe you know these people like your own family. And you’ll ache for them as they reveal the indignities of bankers and real estate brokers circling like buzzards.
First among equals in the cast is the wonderful Plunkett. Mary, a doctor, at first seems a rock, a nurturing presence and the very model of calm composure. But in Plunkett’s tender performance, the cracks appear almost imperceptibly as we learn that she has lost her license to practice medicine, and her struggle to move on after her husband’s death becomes clear. The sale of Thomas’ beloved piano, for years the soul of the house, has only magnified his absence.
Like so many Democrats and media pundits before Tuesday night, Mary seems reasonably confident of a win for her candidate, describing the alternative that would eventually come to pass as “unthinkable.” But she has no illusions that their lives will be fixed, no matter who lands in the White House. “She’ll win,” says Mary. “And then what?” It’s part of the small miracle of this quiet stunner of a drama that it takes us away from our worries about an increasingly uncertain, divided world while immersing us deep in the marrow of it. I can’t wait to catch an all-day marathon of the entire trilogy when the earlier plays return to the Public in December.
Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren
Director-playwright: Richard Nelson
Set designers: Susan Hilferty, Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designers: Scott Lehrer, Will Pickens
Presented by the Public Theater
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