Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gloucester Stage Opens Its 2015 Season With The New England Premiere of The Powerful "Sweet and Sad" by Richard Nelson - Part Two of The Apple Family Plays

Playwright Richard Nelson has written a quartet of inter-related pieces that he calls "The Apple Family Plays."  Gloucester Stage and Stoneham Theatre  have collaborated in planning to produce all four plays in the cycle in 2015 and 2016, alternating between the two locations, but using the same director and the same sextet of actors for all four plays.  The first installment, "That Hopey Changey Thing," was presented this past winter at Stoneham.  Although the second play, "Sweet and Sad" stands on its own, you may wish to fill in the back story of the Apple family by reading my review of Part One below:.

Blog Review of "That Hopey Changey Thing"

As much as I enjoyed the first of Nelson's plays, with "Sweet and Sad" he has raised the bar and he is writing at the top of his game.  This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking reflection on the many facets of loss and grieving loss.  The Apple family is reconvening at the homestead in Rhinebeck, NY on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy. Director Weylin Symes leads this stellar cast with superb dexterity, placing them in relationship to one another and to the audience so that we see the many sides of each character - physically and figuratively.  The playwright injects a discussion, about the role of the audience in the making of art. The discussion occurs as the family is making preparations for Uncle Benjamin to do a reading at a memorial celebration.  That meta-discussion serves as a subtle invitation from Nelson to audience members to fully engage in processing the emotions and thoughts that are being projected onto them by the actors.

The set is by Crystal Tiala, and it creates just the right feel with warm earth tones making the home one we would all be drawn toward.  Sounds design by David Wilson and Lighting Design by Russ Swift are brilliant, using elements of sounds - the Requiem, church bells  - and dramatic changes in lighting to signal a shift in mood or action.   Costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley.

L to R: Joel Colodner as Benjamin Apple; Bill Mootos as Richard Apple; 
Karen MacDonald as Barbara Apple; Sarah Newhouse as Marian Apple Platt; 
Laura Latreille as Jane Apple Halls and Paul Melendy as Tim Andrews
"Sweet and Sad" by Richard Nelson
Gloucester Stage Through June 20
Photo by Gary Ng

Each of the six characters retains the core of their being as first revealed in the initial play.  Yet, each of the individuals has undergone some sort of change in the months that have intervened since the action of the initial installment. The new layers of complexity that are revealed within each character made me care even more than before about them and their future prospects.
  • As Uncle Ben, Joel Colodner portrays a man who continues to struggle with amnesia/dementia. Barbara and Marian have worked with him to prepare him for a public reading.  It is during the dress rehearsal of this reading of a Walt Whitman poem that the old Benjamin emerges from the fog. His rendering of the poem serves as the emotional Ground Zero for this play about loss.  Mr. Colodner is understated and brilliantly avuncular at this moment.  We see a man who had been a ghost begin to reconnect with his former substantial self.
  • Laura Latreille as Jane,has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Tim, whom she brings with her once again to Rhinebeck.  Her book project seems to have hit a snag, and her resentful and  troubled relationship with Richard continues to be prickly.  She also alludes to troubles with her teenage son.  Finances seem to be a problem, since there is a brief mention of her asking Uncle Benjamin for a loan.
  • Karen MacDonald as Barbara tries to keep everything on the surface just so - cooking too much food, fussing about whether or not they are eating too early, worrying about having the right table cloth.  She wants to drown out any negative talk or atmosphere by the sheer force of her perpetual busyness and domesticity.  Near the end of this play, she reveals another side of this complex woman by asking why the government decided to give financial compensation to 9/11 victims.
  • Paul Melendy as Tim has settled into his role within the family constellation..He takes initiative in helping with clearing the table, and in telling stories that are intriguing.  His account of encountering a ghost at the Bellasco Theater raises the specter of the many ghosts that haunt this anniversary of 9/11.  Tim shares that his acting career is not paying the bills, and he is considering taking a more permanent job as a waiter.  Will this mean the death of a dream?
  • Bill Mootos as Richard has undergone a major change - giving up a long carer in the office of the Attorney General in Albany to work at a large Wall Street firm for much more money.  He has moved away from the family's traditional liberal political stance and has begun watching Fox News!  His sisters are appalled and resentful - of his politics and of  his new status as one of the 1%.  His wife remains absent from this gathering and seems to be slowly disappearing from his life.
  • Sarah Newhouse as Marian, has experienced dramatic and traumatic changes.  Her adult daughter has died and her husband has left her, so she now lives with Barbara and Benjamin.  Her lips are permanently tension, giving one the impression that if she let loose, all of the pain and anguish and anger pent up inside of her would burst forth like helium from a birthday balloon.
The playwright has crafted a complex drama, using disparate elements to maximum effect.  The play opens and closes with Marian listening to a recording of a Requiem, sung by a chorus that included the voices of both her daughter, Evan, and her sister, Barbara.  These two scenes serve as bookends that send the message that we are dealing with issues of loss and mourning and saying good-bye.

The choice of the Whitman poem as the piece that Uncle Benjamin will read is brilliant.  From "Leaves of Grass," the poem is "The Wound-Dresser" recounting Whitman's service in ministering to wounded Civil War soldiers.  Part of the excerpt that Benjamin reads includes these lines:

"From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand.
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and the blood.
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side-falling head.
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump.
And has not yet look'd on it"

When I heard those lines, it hit me immediately that this is what this play is all about.  Each character has some sort of bloody stump that they have not examined.  For some, they are just beginning to open their eyes and to admit they they have undergone a painful and involuntary amputation, or see one coming in the near future.

As the play winds down, Barbara and Marian are finishing clearing the table.  Marian notices that despite all of their efforts to keep things pristine, there are stains upon the table cloth.  Life can never be antiseptic, it will always have its slough and matter and blood.

Marian is left alone on the stage, listening intently for her daughter's voice in the Requiem.  She hears the alto strains, and whispers "Good-bye" as she exits.  Fade to black.  Powerful.  Heartbreaking

Go see this play.  Through June 20 at Gloucester Stage..



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