The Apple Family in Quarantine

By Carol Rocamora

“The time is out of joint…”

That quote (from Hamlet) kept echoing in my ear, while watching Incidental Moments of the Day, Richard Nelson’s haunting new play.  It’s the last in his new on-line trilogy, featuring the Apple Family in quarantine during the current pandemic.   Fragmented screens, fragmented conversations, fragmented lives, fragmented times…

We’ve met the Apples before, in person, at the Public Theatre.  From 2010-2013, we sat with them around their dinner table in Rhinebeck, New York as they talked about moments in their day, while time passed, national elections and events came and went, and an uneasy sense of the unknown loomed large.  The family includes three sisters and a brother (like the Prozorov family in The Three Sisters.  No wonder Nelson’s plays have frequently been described as Chekhovian.)

Nelson had already moved on to other family cycles – The Gabriels and the Michaels – but when our theatres went dark in March, 2020, this unique chronicler of our times responded by resurrecting the Apples on ZOOM.  In April 2020, he gave us What Do We Need To Talk About, featuring the Apples quarantining in their separate homes in Rhinebeck, their town of origin.  Richard (a lawyer) has been working for Governor Cuomo, Barbara and Marian are former schoolteachers, and Jane is a writer.  Tim, Jane’s partner, an actor and restaurant manager, joins them as part of the extended family.  We watch them on their separate ZOOM screens, as they gather for dinner and conversation.  It’s their shared lifeline.

Then, in July, Nelson invited us to join the Apples on-line again in And So We Come Forth, the second of the trilogy, as the quarantine starts to loosen.

And now, in September, we join the Apples once more, in Incidental Moments of the Day, as they slowly emerge from quarantine.  Unlike the previous two plays, however, the family is no longer united in Rhinebeck.  Jane (a fragile Sally Murphy) is the only one remaining, depressed and agoraphobic.  Her partner Tim (a sensitive Stephen Kunken) is now in his mother’s home in Amherst, hosting his daughter and a friend who are studying on-line, “pretending to be college students in a college town,” as Tim puts it (fragmentation again.)  Barbara (the vulnerable Maryann Plunkett) and Richard (the steady Jay O. Sanders) are in Albany, cleaning out his apartment (he’s quit his job), preparing to move back to Rhinebeck.  The cast, uniform throughout the trilogy, approaches perfection.

All the Apples’ lives are in flux now.  Richard will move back to Rhinebeck, but won’t join Barbara in her apartment, as before.  He’s found a new partner named Yvonne, an off-stage character who is referred to so frequently that you feel you know her. Tim’s daughter and Jane have had a falling out, so their relationship is in flux.  Meanwhile, Marian (the lovely Laila Robins, who appears briefly at the end) has met someone.  Barbara will soon be living alone, a thought that fills her with a quiet terror. 

That sense of anxiety in the face of the unknown pervades this beautifully written, exquisitely acted, sensitively realized play.  Like the ZOOM screen and like their lives, their conversations are fragmented.   Jane talks about people in stores who don’t wear masks. Tim talks of meeting a former drama teacher, who gives him a copy of The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov, again). There are frequent references to their shared childhood and their grandfather Benjamin Apple.  And everyone talks about Yvonne.

Although there are no direct references to politics, there are subtle and unsettling comments obliquely related to the current events and issues.  Jane tells a story she learned from a lecture at the library about Lafayette, who returned to America in an election year.  His welcome was overwhelming, as he sailed up the Hudson to cheering throngs.    “What were people looking for?” Jane wonders.  “Something lost, forgotten?  Or were they just feeling leaderless?” Richard tells Yvonne’s story about a French production that closed in Canada, amidst accusations of racism.  Tim revisits books by James Baldwin and Athol Fugard that he’s read as a student.  “This country is in the midst of its worst drought… the drought of the human heart,” Tim quotes from Fugard.  

Time, memory, aging, loss, the unknown that lies ahead – these are the Chekhovian themes that haunt this play.  (There’s even a reference to a visit to the local cemetery, as in The Cherry Orchard).  Tim recalls a visit to Mass MOCA, an art museum he once went to with his mother (who now has Alzheimers).  The name of the exhibit was “Incidental Moments of the Day.”

And then there’s a total surprise – Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), a family friend now in Angers, France, appears in her own ZOOM frame to entertain the Apples with a dance to a Scott Joplin tune.  It’s a charming, fanciful moment, offering the humorous distraction they all crave, as they face the unknown.  What does the dance mean?  That’s not the point, in a Nelson play.  It’s just a “moment of the day” – or “life as it is,” as Chekhov puts it.

Incidental Moments of the Day: The Apple Family: Life on Zoom, streaming until November 5 on www.theapplefamilyplays.com  

Production Photos: Jason Ardizzone-West

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