For me, last evening was a bitter sweet experience in watching the Opening Night performance of the remarkable play, "Regular Singing" by Richard Nelson. The experience was sweet because once again, we got to plumb the depths of the characters and relationships of the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York. Over the course of the past two years, Stoneham Theatre has collaborated with Gloucester Stage and now with New Rep to present all four of the plays that make up the Apple family saga. I have had the privilege of watching each of the plays. Since this is the final installment in the tetralogy that Mr. Nelson has crafted, seeing these six characters assembled once again in the family homestead, I felt as if I had been invited to participate in a family reunion.
What was bitter about the experience was the knowledge that barring a revival of this series of plays, I was also bidding farewell to six characters I had come to know and to care about. It is altogether fitting that I should experience those feelings of loss and nostalgia, for these are continuing motifs that run throughout the series of plays, and that come to full flower in "Regular Singing." In this play, we enter the action just as a house full of people have left the Apple residence, having gathered to say good-bye to Adam, ex-husband of Marian Apple. Marian has taken charge of his hospice care, and he is upstairs where Marian, Adam's mother and a nurse's aide are holding vigil at his bedside. The family members are cleaning up after the meal, and begin bantering with one another to catch up on what is happening in the life of each one.
Throughout this series, Nelson brilliantly toggles back and forth between macrocosm and microcosm. Each play is set on the anniversary of a particular national tragedy - 9/11, the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination - and in the context of these global times of remembrance, the family members engage in very personal and interior reflections of loss or impending loss. Death and celebration of life within death's shadow intermingle in a continuing dance.
The six characters form a constellation of complex relationships. The six actors are each extraordinary in the artistry they have brought to clearly limning these half dozen fascinating and flawed human beings.
- Karen MacDonald is magnificent as Barbara Apple, the older sister who fusses over everyone everything. She needs to be in control, even to the point of repeating everything that Uncle Benjamin says - much to his chagrin. She is almost obsessive compulsive about keeping the members of the family closely tied to the ancestral home. In "Regular Singing," she articulates her role in life as she retorts to a challenge by Richard. He has accused her of living her life vicariously through others. Her reply in essence is to say: "There is nothing wrong with devoting oneself to caring for the needs of others. That can be a very fulfilling life."
- Sarah Newhouse is rock solid as the conflicted Marian. Following the suicide of their daughter, Marian and Adam had split, but she has finally found a way to forgive him and to stand with him as his life ebbs away. While preparing to say good-bye to her ex-husband, she still mourns the loss of their daughter.
- Laura Latreille perfectly portrays the flighty Jane Apple, whose head is full of ideas about books she will write, but who never quite manages to execute on her plans. She is divorced, but has settled into a comfortable relationship with struggling actor, Tim.
- Bill Mootos deftly portrays a multi-layered Richard, the only male member of his generation of Apples. He perpetually contends with all three sisters hovering over him and worry about him and his failing marriage with Pamela. During the action of "Regular Singing," the sisters confront him dramatically and accuse him of hiding and running away from them and from his problems. Characteristically, Barbara implores him to move back home to Rhinebeck.
- Joel Colodner has been spectacularly effective in inviting us into the mind and heart of an aging actor, Uncle Benjamin, who is slowly descending into dementia. It is a different kind of death and loss, and one that is heart-rending to behold. A poignant moment in "Regular Singing" is Uncle Ben reading a portion from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." It is clear that as a playwright, Richard Nelson draws great inspiration from Dr. Chekhov's themes, and this is a wonderful nod in homage to the gifted Russian writer.
- Paul Melendy portrays Tim, Jane's boyfriend who has insinuated himself into the fabric of the Apple orchard. Mr. Melendy is one of the finest actors working in Boston, and each word and gesture is something to savor. Tim, as the lone member of the constellation not to carry any Apple DNA, is able to be objective in observing and commenting upon family dynamics. He often accomplishes this through sharing stories, vignettes, or simply by cocking an eyebrow and making a knowing nod.
Even if you have not had the opportunity to experience the prior three plays in this series, "Regular Singing" stands on its own. It should not be missed. It will run at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through September 25th.
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