The Apple Family Cycle: Sorry and Regular Singing
Two plays complete the Apple family quartet at Studio Theatre.
In its 2013 season, Studio Theatre produced two plays that make up the first half of Richard Nelson's cycle about a family's struggle to balance private life against a background of changing politics, which serves as a way of exploring national and personal idealism and disappointment. The first (That Hopey Changey Thing) is set in the dining room of the Apple family home in Rhinebeck, New York, during the anniversary of President Obama's first midterm election in 2010. The second play (Sweet and Sad) is set in the same place and examines the family in the light of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Now Studio Theatre is presenting Nelson's final two plays in The Apple Family Cycle: Sorry and Regular Singing.
Sorry begins at 5 a.m. on November 6, 2012, Election Day. The same characters exist as did in the earlier plays. There are three grown daughters, Barbara, Jane, and Marian, one son, Richard, and their uncle, Benjamin, who was once a talented actor, but who is now losing his memory. The children have decided that he should be put in an assisted living facility. It's a lively family — intelligent and not afraid to criticize or happily badger one another. It's also a family that has seen its share of sorrow and suffering.
Although the setting on Election Day brings up questions of who will win and what each character would say to the new President if he or she had the chance, Sorry is not a political play. The characters are aware of the importance of politics and are willing to speak up for their beliefs, but the larger political landscape is dwarfed by the problems that face the characters at home. There is far more atmosphere than plot in Sorry. The siblings eat cold Chinese food from the previous night while discussing in detail when to get dressed and when to vote. The one topic they avoid settling is when they will take Benjamin to his new home.
Sarah Marshall is brilliant as the cheery – and sometimes acidly insightful – Barbara, a high school teacher who really listens to her students. Kimberly Schraf plays Jane beautifully, as a lighthearted innocent who frets only slightly over her major life problem: as a writer, she can't find an appropriate nonfiction subject to tackle. Elizabeth Pierotti's Marian is an optimistic elementary school teacher, whose belief in NPR's infallibility knows no bounds. Rick Foucheux turns in a fine performance as the blustery, brow-beaten Richard, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan and is tired of his sisters relying on him. In Sorry, Richard has just come back from London to find the three siblings waiting for him to make the final decision regarding Benjamin. Ted van Griethuysen is superb as the placid Benjamin, who seems to remember very little at all, except how good it tastes to drink whiskey and smoke a cigarette in the backyard.
In Regular Singing, the same family members return with the addition of one character, Tim, Jane's boyfriend, an actor who cheerfully waits tables now that he and Jane have moved to Rhinebeck. Jeremy Webb plays him as loving, even tempered, and playful. Tim is careful to pay attention to Benjamin, who spends weekends with the family. Richard's situation has also changed. He has given up employment in Manhattan for a job in Albany with Andrew Cuomo, and he is living alone.
This family reunion is slightly over a year after the last one, on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination. Barbara has asked her teenaged students to write about death in observation of that event, even though they don't remember it firsthand. Their responses range from serious, touching poems to nonchalant prose about the fact that death is meaningless. The talk of death reflects the real struggle that the family is going through. While the Apples gather in the dining room, upstairs Marian's ex-husband is dying of cancer. Marian and her siblings have put aside all their anger over the divorce and reopened their home to see him through to the end. The fact of death nearby and memories of the assassination don't invest the play with a morbid tone, however. Death seems to be just another reason for the siblings to come together, as Thanksgiving might. There is plenty of humor to go around, as the sisters put pressure on Richard to move to Rhinebeck — and as he staunchly refuses.
In both Sorry and Regular Singing, director Serge Seiden turns the swirling observations, questions, and replies into intimate conversations, full of twists and turns that ultimately make a sensible pattern. He keeps the pace upbeat, moving swiftly from comments about Romney and Obama to constant offers of food and drink. He lets Nelson's plentiful, offbeat comedy breathe freely.
The lovely a cappella Shapenote singing with which Sorry begins sets the tone for a communal event which could, Barbara explains, in the 18th century, "ward off any evil...just by the act of singing together." The power of music to protect the community is even more clearly delineated at the end of Regular Singing, when the family gathers to rehearse a song for the upcoming funeral of Marian's ex-husband. That song ends up providing a powerful scene for the standoffish Richard and results in a moving moment as the conclusion to two plays in which contention and passive-aggression get equal time with cooperation.
Debra Booth's set for both plays consists of a wooden dining room table with a light fixture overhead, several chairs, and a door to the kitchen. Scenes are divided by blackouts (lighting designer, Daniel Wagner) and the sound of delicate bells chiming, created by sound designer Palmer Hefferan.
There is something richly fulfilling in Nelson's writing, its graceful naturalism laced with energy and credibility as the dialogue rockets from the banal to the spiritual. And there is a delightful solidity to this family. There may not be a fifth play in the Apple Family Cycle, but it seems as though the family will always be there in Rhinebeck, waiting for the next reunion.