Has it really been over a year since we last spent a meal with the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York? It feels like just yesterday that we were in the Center Street home Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) shares with her Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries) and currently, sister Marian (Laila Robins), as guests at an intimate gathering featuring copious wine, a few good jokes, and a whole lot of familial togetherness.
Sorry, Richard Nelson's frequently funny new play about the Apples, now at the Public Theater's Anspacher, finds the extended family -- which also includes brother Robert (Jay O. Sanders) and sister Jane (J. Smith Cameron) -- at home in the wee small hours of November 6, 2012. They've gathered to bring their Uncle Benjamin to an assisted living facility in Beacon, his dementia having become too much for his nieces to handle.
Like the previous works in Nelson's series, the play contains its share of topical remarks, such as references to Hurricane Sandy, the impending Nor'Easter, plus a particularly poignant sequence where the siblings describe what they'd ask the President if given a minute of his time. But the piece is not destined to feel dated next week, as it squarely focuses on aging and guilt.
When we first met former renowned actor Uncle Benjamin, he was suffering from amnesia induced following a heart attack and a subsequent coma. Now, it has expanded into full-blown dementia. He can barely recognize his nieces and nephews, and he has lost his inhibitions to the point that he just uncomfortably stares at Barbara while she's asleep, and worse, while she's in the shower.
As beautifully played by Plunkett, Barbara's agonizing grief and guilt at the decision to put her uncle away is palpable even from the furthest point in the house. The actress expertly conveys, through facial expressions, body language, and a slightly quivering voice, the soul-wrenching realization that you no longer have the ability to care for the person who took care of you.
As guided by Nelson on a spare, homey set by Susan Hilferty, the five actors are all so fully believable as a living, breathing family unit that it's hard to imagine they're not actually related (although Plunkett and Sanders are married in real life.)
While originally, this was going to be the final play in Nelson's trilogy, a fourth one is in store -- and we eagerly anticipate spending another day with this remarkable family.