Somehow, it’s been three years since we first sat down for a meal with the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York. Three mind-bogglingly-fast years since we first broke bread and took part in spirited, passionate discussions about politics and society and family and theater. A lot has changed in that time. People have aged; their views on the world are different now than they once were. Families have been torn apart by death. And memories of events past have continued to haunt.
Memory is the focal point of Richard Nelson’s beautifully contemplative series of dramas, now concluding at The Public Theater with the lovely and uneventful Regular Singing. As with the three previous works in this tetralogy — That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad, and Sorry — this play is set on the day it officially opened. In this case, November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Apples, brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders); sisters Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Marian (Laila Robins), and Jane (Sally Murphy); their uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries); and Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken), have gathered at Barbara’s dining room on a particularly sad occasion. Marian’s ex-husband Adam (unseen) is upstairs dying of lung cancer, an illness that developed after the suicide of their twenty-year-old daughter, Evan, two years earlier (an event that shaped the plot of Sweet and Sad).
An air of uncertainty hangs low around Susan Hilferty’s spare set, consisting of a table, some chairs, and a few throw rugs. With Adam’s death imminent, the Apples are unsure how to act. Are they allowed to laugh? Are they allowed to mourn? Are they allowed to care about other things, like whether Richard is intentionally distancing himself from his family, having taken a new job as a lawyer in Governor Cuomo’s Albany office?
These are but a few of the discussions at hand, which we view, from three sides of the Public’s Anspacher Theater, like flies on the wall of Barbara’s stately Hudson Valley home. Not much happens physically, but these plays are not about events. They’re about how time goes by. They’re about how the best thing to do to jog someone’s memory is to quote a bit of Chekhov or Euripides. They’re about, as writer/director Nelson describes in his program note, “the need to know, in small and even some bigger ways, that we are not alone.”
In spending four years with the Apples, we’ve come to befriend them as though we actually knew them. At this point, it doesn’t even feel like we’re watching actors; Sanders (at his best in this play), Plunkett, Robins, DeVries, Murphy, and Kunken own their characters strongly and realistically. (It’s particularly impressive in the cases of Murphy and Kunken, who joined the production for this run, replacing J. Smith Cameron and Shuler Hensley, now working on other projects). And my realization that I’ll no longer be able to visit them year after year is akin to the great loss I felt when I finished the last book in the Harry Potter series.
Nelson ends our final visit to Rhinebeck with an fourth wall-breaking coda. “And so we live,” Barbara tells us in the first and only direct address of the series. Reassures us. The Apples will live, yes, in the same way that Harry and Hermione and Ron continue to live, in the fruits of our memories. But it isn’t the same, really. How I’ll miss being with them in person.