Friday, March 13, 2015

Stoneham Theatre Presents "That Hopey Changey Thing" by Richard Nelson - Through March 15 - See It This Weekend!

If your plans for this weekend are not already set, you may want to consider a trip to Stoneham Theatre to see one of the last performances of "That Hopey Changey Thing" by Richard Nelson. You may even want to enjoy a nice pre-theater dinner at Felicia's - just down the street.  I had a terrific meal there last evening before seeing a show that I know you would enjoy.

I will give you details of why I enjoyed Mr. Nelson's opening salvo in what will be a four play cycle presented over the next two seasons jointly by the Stoneham Theatre and Gloucester Stage Company.  But before I do that, allow me a brief detour to take you inside the mind of a theater reviewer (sometimes called a "critic")  Since I was privileged to be invited to join the ranks of the IRNE Reviewers (Independent Reviewers of New England), I have been inundated with invitations to attend and to review shows in most of the greater Boston area theaters.  I cannot possibly see all the shows I would like to see, so I am always making subjective choices.  Here is a list of some of the factors that go into deciding whether I choose to attend and to review a show:

  • How does the timing fit with my work and travel schedule?
  • Do I know and respect the work of this theater company?
  • Is the play one that I am familiar with?
  • Is this the work of a playwright or a director that I know and respect?
  • Does the cast include actors that I know and respect?
  • Is the subject matter of the play of interest to me?
  • Is the location easily accessible by T (I operate these days using only public transportation)
Using these criteria, I decided to pass when I first learned about "That Hopey Changey Thing."  The Press Opening fell on a date when I would be out of town.  Getting to Stoneham in the middle of the week by T can be a challenge.  I thought the title of the play sounded silly.  But then two factors caused me to reconsider my decision.  I learned who was in the cast, and I knew I needed to find a way to see this show.  And then I learned that this is the first installment of what will be a four-part series, and I did not want to miss out on what promises to be an intriguing series of plays.

I am glad that I made the decision that I did to schlep out to Stoneham Square last evening.  Despite its off-putting title, "That Hopey Changey Thing" is a delightful introduction to the Apple family, a typical liberal Rhinebeck, NY family.  The extended family consists of three sisters and a brother, and their aged  uncle.  Unmarried Barbara cares for the convalescing Uncle Ben, who is recovering from a heart attack and subsequent "amnesia," which seems to be the family's euphemism for dementia.  It is election eve in 2010, and Richard, the lone male among the bevy of Apple girls, stops by from Albany,. where he has worked for a parade of Attorneys General, including Andrew Cuomo, who is on the brink of being elected Governor of New York.  It becomes clear during the course of the evening that Richard is struggling in his career, in his marriage and in his commitment to the Democratic ideals espoused by the rest of the clan. This is very disturbing to his sister, Marian, with whom he has a long running fed over such issues.  Jane rounds out the family.  Recently divorced, she and her actor boyfriend, Tim, have come to visit.  Barbara is peeved that they are not staying longer.

The actions develops around the dining room table and the overflow card table that has been set up to accommodate all six principals.In the very ordinariness of their interchanges, deep feelings are explored and in this initial chapter of the Apple family saga, we begin to feel the rub of subterranean tectonic plates that may result in some Richter scale activity in subsequent plays.  Why did the father of the clan leave his wife and children when he did?  Will Richard really become a Republican?  How much memory will Uncle Ben retain, and how draining will caring for him turn out to be for Barbara?  What is the nature of the relationship between Uncle Ben and Marian, for he lit up like a Christmas tree when she arrived and mooned over her like an adolescent school girl. Why is Jane dating a younger man, and will the family come to accept him?  Will the book that Jane is writing on dining habits and etiquette intrude on the family's privacy?

The set design by Crystal Tiala is perfect - evoking memories of dining rooms that many of us remember from our own homes or those of our grandparents or great Aunt Ethel.  All four plays in this series will use the same set and the same cast, so I already began to feel at home there.  Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg is warm and effective in moving the action from scene to scene..  Sound design by David Wilson includes atmospherics and a variety of dog sounds, for the off-stage dog contributes important plot points.  The costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley set just the right tone.

Weylin Symes very ably directs this stellar cast that drew me to Stoneham.  
  • As Uncle Ben, Joel Colodner is very believable.  He toggles among several mental states -  vacantly staring, mild irritability, and passionate engagement in reading a script he once knew by heart in his days as a stage actor in NYC.  It is a subtly powerful performance.
  • Laura Latreille is terrific as Jane, juggling complex relationships with her siblings, and stage managing Tim's integration into the family ecosystem.  Her book may prove to provide some interesting lenses through which to see the family members in the future.
  • Karen MacDonald is her usual impressive self, presenting a Barbara who is self-effacing and self-sacrificial in caring for Uncle Ben while quietly resenting her siblings for keeping their distance.  Barbara seems to be the rock who will hold things together as the cracks begin to widen.  We shall see.
  • Paul Melendy is wonderfully awkward as Tim.  Not knowing exactly how to fit in, he engages Uncle Ben in discussing issues of acting and theater.  Ben sometimes responds with enthusiasm, and at other times barks: "Who are you and what are you doing here?"  Mr. Melendy can convey more meaning with a sideways glance or a carefully placed gesture than many actors can pull off in an entire soliloquy.
  • Bill Mootos as Richard is a bundle of contradictions, fending off questions about his recently returned wife, Pamela and his impending job change.  A very telling and moving scene occurs near the end of the play when the three sisters re-enact a ritual that was obviously an important part of their collective childhoods - gang tickling Richard to the point of distraction and exasperation.
  • Sarah Newhouse is a very serious Marian, whose off-stage husband is helping to run the local voting precinct in the library just down the street from the Apple homestead.  One of the best moments in the play occurs when Richard succeeds in pushing Marian's buttons by blurting out "Sarah Palin!"  Marian reacts as if she had been hit by a TASER, jumps and drops on the floor her plate of pie and ice cream.  That bit of physical acting signals just how tightly wound Marian must be, and highlights the latent tension between Marian and Richard.
Karen MacDonald as Barbara
Sarah Newhouse as Marian
Laura Latreille as Jane
Paul Melendy as  Tim
Bill Mootos as  Richard
"That Hopey Changey Thing"
by Richard Nelson
Stoneham Theatre
Through March 15 

At the end of the play, I felt that I had just begun a journey with these six fascinating individuals.  I cannot wait to see where the road may take them in the next three installments.  I wonder how far from the tree these Apples will fall?

Only a few more performances remain, so make your way to Stoneham Theatre this weekend.  You will not be sorry.



That Hopey Changey Thing

February 26–March 15, 2015

By Richard Nelson
Directed by Weylin Symes
Featuring Joel Colodner*, Laura Latreille*, Karen MacDonald*,
Paul Melendy*, Bill Mootos*, and Sarah Newhouse*
"Mr. Nelson's series is quietly turning into one of the great accomplishments in American theater to date in this century." —The New York Times
It’s Election Day 2010, and the Apple family gathers for dinner in their childhood home in upstate New York. On the menu is a discussion of everything from Sarah Palin to the best way to de-skunk a dog. Richard Nelson explores ideas big and small, personal and political, and fashions them into a heartfelt, funny and engaging snapshot of contemporary life.
*Denotes member of Actors' Equity Association.
Please note: That Hopey Changey Thing contains adult language.
THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING runs approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission.

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