Richard Nelson's portrait of an American family struggling with grief, debt and political turmoil is as epic as it is intimate.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Consisting of three separate plays – Hungry, What Did You Expect, and Women of a Certain Age – performed back to back over 8 hours and 15 minutes (including overly extended meal breaks between each piece), The Gabriels premiered in the USA in 2016; a theatrical response to key moments in the Presidential election as seen through the eyes of a middle class American family. It comes to Australia exclusively for Perth International Arts Festival; a programming coup by PIAF Artistic Director Wendy Martin.
Like playwright and director Richard Nelson's previous domestic saga, The Apple Family Plays, these three works – each set on the night they premiered – take place in the small town of Rhinebeck in Upstate New York; a microcosm of life in one sort of America.
The setting is the Gabriel family kitchen; at the start of each play the stage is bare save for tables, chairs, a stove, a refrigerator. The action begins as the family members begin dressing the set – placing pots on the stove, food on the table, postcards and old photographs on the fridge. In such rare moments they are united and determined; thereafter we watch enthralled as family tensions are revealed, old wounds exposed and new anxieties uncovered – presented with subtle, affecting realism and never slipping into melodrama despite some of the tragedies on show.
As the first play opens we meet the family shortly after they have gathered to scatter the ashes of recently deceased playwright Thomas Gabriel in the icy waters of the Hudson River. The Gabriels' home is crowded: as well as Thomas' aging mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) and widow Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, we also meet his strong-willed sister Joyce (Amy Warren), a costume designer; his carpenter brother George (Jay O. Sanders) who makes money on the side teaching the piano to local children; George's wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), a caterer; and Karin (Meg Gibson), an actor and Thomas' ex-wife, who no-one can quite remember inviting.
Subsequently we watch as the Gabriels discuss the impending election – wishing Hilary would be more human and almost never referring to Trump by name, as if speaking it aloud might evoke evil – and dealing with the shocks and travails, awkward dates and crippling debts of contemporary life.
The chaffing pressures of the class system are subtly displayed, highlighting the tensions between native Rhinebeckers and visiting New Yorkers whose money the Gabriels need but whose presence and privilege they resent. The plays are also powerful feminist statements, though subtly so; watching the actors' performances one is reminded how rare it is to see 'women of a certain age' centre stage as well-rounded characters in their own right rather than as adjuncts or playthings of men. The fact that they wear minimal or no make-up is also refreshing: here, blemishes are a badge of pride, wrinkles the sign of a life well-lived. Instead of slick artifice the cast's appearance mirrors the drama of the play: rare truthfulness, the rich, complex, and recognisable resonance of family life.
In each play a meal is prepared in real time – vegetables are chopped, onions fried – as the characters chew over old arguments and new setbacks. Over the course of the three plays we see Karin go from being an outsider, nervously asking whether she's chopping vegetables correctly, to someone closer to the heart of the family; simultaneously, the deep tensions between Joyce and her aging mother are slowly revealed. The pace is gentle, the drama all too real, and the moments of heartbreak at the end of each play are subtly, devastatingly beautiful.
Performances are remarkable; rich, nuanced and effortlessly sincere. Plunkett's occasional flashes of irrational, grieving anger and Maxwell's dry wit and well-placed barbs are particular highlights, though every actor brings something special to their roles. Save for the odd absence of technology from the family home (perhaps a deliberate attempt by Nelson to evoke a timeless quality to the work despite its contemporary setting) the script is flawless, capturing the circular conversations, the in-jokes, the fractured and overlapping conversations and easy manners of family life.
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is a quiet, compelling masterpiece.
5 stars out of 5
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
A Public Theater Production presented by Perth International Arts Festival
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Amy Warren
Subiaco Arts Centre
11-18 February 2017
Perth International Arts Festival
10 February - 5 March 2017
Richard Watts travelled to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival.