By Carol Rocamora
Richard brings home take-out from a local Indian restaurant.
Jane walks the dog.
Barbara emails her students.
Marian hints at a gentleman caller.
“And so we come forth” with the Apple Family, as they struggle through the current crisis, along with the rest of us.
Yes, we’re part of one big extended family now – the Apples and us – thanks to ZOOM and Richard Nelson, the creator of this deeply moving family saga.
Since 2010, we’ve dined with the Apples (live, at the Public Theater), through many historical events – including elections and anniversaries of 9-11 and JFK’s assassinations. Featuring three sisters (like Chekhov’s Prozorov family) and their brother in their separate Rhinebeck, New York homes, they’ve invited us to their table once again – only a short time since our last dinner together in May (What Do We Need To Talk About), when they were in strict quarantine. (So were we.) Now, there’s an uneasy loosening of the restrictions. Both these “virtual” dinners take place on ZOOM – a new dramatic form ironically ideal for these gatherings.
For, like Chekhov’s family, we’re together, and yet apart – on separate frames of the same computer screen, floating in a void of the unknowable future. The Apples talk nonchalantly about “normal” issues in these abnormal times – like a first haircut, or a first dentist appointment, or a job loss, or should their teenage offspring hold hands during a pandemic.
But under these light surfaces, there’s turbulence – like Tim’s problems with his troubled teenage daughter Karen. Should Tim (Stephen Kunken) and Jane (Sally Murphy, the youngest sister), new partners, take Karen and a friend into their cramped Rhinebeck apartment? There’s tension in the air, which Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), the eldest sister, cohabiting with her brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders) tries to dissipate with an offer that the girls move in with them. As in life, these tensions are brief and unresolved. They ebb and flow, as the conversation moves on to another topic and everyone tries to avoid the real problem.
That “real problem” is, of course, what’s going on the world around all of us. In addition to the dread pandemic, words like “protests” and references to racism creep into the conversation. One after another, the characters reveal feelings of dislocation, disorientation, isolation, and uncertainty. “When will it end?” asks Barbara.
The beauty of Nelson’s Apple Family Cycle lies in the context. Like the concentric circles in Chekhov’s plays, characters contemplate the past and the future. Richard hopes to write a book about Rhinebeck’s history (did you know there was a Vice-President buried in the local cemetery?) As for the future, there’s only the unknown. Barbara reads a disquieting message from a friend (appropriately named Masha), containing questions such as: “What kind of country should we have? … What kind can we expect it to become? What do we knock down, or pull up, or ignore? What is left to learn from? … Does truth exist anymore?” Pause. “Anyway, “life goes on,” Barbara shrugs. And the conversation turns to a dentist appointment.
Richard offers two questions of his own: “What do you fear? What do you hope for?” Marian (Laila Robins, the middle sister) offers a comment, rather than an answer: “I have not touched another human being for over three months – this is what I’m missing.” Yes, playwright Richard Nelson has heeded Chekhov’s advice: “An artist’s job is not to answer questions, only to pose them.”
As for these remarkable actors, they’re so settled in the skin of their characters that you can no longer tell Jay O. Sanders from the role (Richard) that he plays. The same can be said of the rest of this virtuoso cast, a number of whom have been in the Apple Family from the beginning.
“And so we come forth to behold the stars” – Barbara quotes from the last line of Dante’s Inferno at the moment he leaves hell. It’s a fridge magnet given to her by another teacher – and its meaning is not lost. As in the end of the previous Apple dinner, we’re left with Barbara alone on the screen, the character showing most vulnerability (even her students have been asking her to stop emailing them). In this last aching moment, Barbara listens to the sublime strains of a trio from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte on her I-phone. She clings to that device as if it’s a life preserver.
Photos: Jason Ardizzone-West
And So We Come Forth (The Apple Family, a Dinner Zoom), a world premiere written and directed by Richard Nelson, produced by Apple Family Productions and on-line for eight weeks
A benefit for The Actors Fund, www.theapplefamilyplays.com