In much the same way that Anton Chekhov established himself as the literary archivist of late-19th and early-20th-century Russia, playwright-director Richard Nelson has completed an achievement easily remarkable enough to establish him as a chronicler of our own era. On Election Night 2016, his Women of a Certain Age opened at The Public Theater in New York, concluding a trilogy — which began with Hungry and What Did You Expect? — about a middle-class Rhinebeck, NY family. With these plays, Nelson beautifully illustrates how one particular American family stratum lives in our day and age.
The three-part opus is called The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. More significantly, Nelson conjoins this trilogy to an earlier 2010 tetralogy, also set in Rhinebeck, called The Apple Family Plays, which consisted of That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Low, Sorry and Regular Singing.
All the plays take place in real time on the night they open at the Public. This year, patrons watched the Gabriels gather around their kitchen table to prepare dinner and talk about anything and everything that affects them directly. Their often-nervous banter includes confessions, admissions and, less often, some boasts about their personal lives and the lives of the nation and the globe.
The kitchen table is where Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor and widow of playwright Thomas Gabriel, hosts her mother-in-law, Patricia Gabriel (Roberta Maxwell); her piano teaching and cabinet-making brother-in-law, George Maxwell (Jay O. Sanders); her costume designer sister-in-law, Joyce (Amy Warren); George’s wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who is a hotel cleaning lady; and Karin (Meg Gibson), Thomas Gabriel’s first wife, an actress who rents a room from Mary.
The irresistible thing about the Gabriels is how widely their conversation ranges. Audience members who have seen the trilogy in its entirety know that Mary still mourns Thomas; that George and Hannah have a fractious relationship with their (unseen) son, Paulie; that Patricia and Joyce have longstanding mother-daughter issues that they attempt to disguise; that finances all around are iffy; that George and Hannah have their home on the market; that the family piano had to be sold, despite George’s devotion to it; that Karin remains a sometimes questionable member of the family.
All of these situations are brought up to date as Mary and the others go about the business of dinner — readying a main course of shepherd’s pie; never settling on the sort of salad they want; and selecting the cookie cutters for dessert. (The working stove, refrigerator and sink are prominent on the set designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, which gives new meaning to “kitchen-sink drama.”)
Needless to say, the Trump-Clinton presidential contest is one of the topics raised and dropped during the play. “It’s Election Day,” Mary says. “We should be talking about that.” And they do — for example, a reference to “Hillary in Pennsylvania.” On a related subject, George asks, “What does right have to do with anything?” Karin brings up a one-woman show she’s preparing. Mary speculates about a possible election outcome that the Gabriels don’t want — which is likened to going to a cliff, holding hands and jumping.
If there’s one element in Nelson’s surpassing work that doesn’t entirely compute, it’s ironically the time spent on such topics. A case could be made that with this year’s nationwide bout, the Gabriels represent the kind of family caught up more compulsively in the frenzied and fervent goings-on than they appear to be. Perhaps Nelson — who commenced the trilogy long before he could have imagined the election results — couldn’t keep up with so much topical updating. For instance, there’s no inclusion of the name James Comey.
Nonetheless, Nelson’s accomplishment as a playwright is matched by his accomplishment as a director. The six-person cast is a model of naturalistic acting; there is no first-among-equals. Though it could be argued that Nelson favors Mary — a woman who, having lost her husband and ended her professional career, no longer has any fixed idea of what she wants to do next.
As a matter of theatrical fact, Mary is the only character who nearly loses control as frustration and anger overcome her — just as she did in What Did You Expect? Plunkett, alone on stage as Women of a Certain Age finishes, remains the emblem — an uncertain one — of Nelson’s vision. She is worthy of playing such an emblem.
Mary also delivers Nelson’s first speech, asking “Who’s there?” Those are also the opening words of Hamlet. Nelson, devilishly sly when he wants to be, later brings up Hamlet again. What Mary doesn’t say, but what many audience members may think, is that in our now-upended political climate, “Who’s there?” is a question we should all be making.
The play begins and ends with many measures of a single song: “Until We Get There,” by Lucius. It includes the lyric, “Is this the time for one more try at a happy life?” How pertinent to the Gabriels. How prescient of Nelson to borrow it. It may become an anthem of our times.