Aisle View: Last Supper of The Gabriels

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Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley
and Meg Gibson in
Women of a Certain Age
Photo: Joan Marcus

There's something rotten in the state of New York, town of Rhinebeck. Not rotten, exactly; rather, festering and smoldering. Ghosts of the past and ghosts of the soon-to-be future, mixed with resentment and malaise. Playwright/director Richard Nelson ends his masterly trilogy, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, with Women of a Certain Age.

The Gabriel family, who have been precariously slipping from the comfortable life they have enjoyed for generations, encountered difficulties in Hungry (which took place and opened on March 4) and stood near the brink of financial catastrophe in What Did You Expect? (which took place and opened on September 10). The proceedings of Women of a Certain Age (which takes place and opened yesterday, on Election Day) conclude at about 7 P.M., which is to say after the characters voted--presumably for Hillary, with assorted misgivings--but before the polls closed. (Nelson seems to have finished his up-to-the minute rewrites in time for an afternoon rehearsal, giving the actors time to absorb the final changes.) So Women of a Certain Age doesn't dissolve into the tragedy it might well have been had it opened today.

In September, we learned--and the surviving Gabriel children, George (Jay O. Sanders) and Joyce (Amy Warren) learned--that matriarch Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) had been tricked into signing away the family homestead in one of those mortgage schemes that target the elderly. We duly watched the family pull together, trying to prepare for the inevitable. Also on hand are Mary (Maryann Plunkett), widow of the eldest Gabriel brother who died shortly before Hungry; Karin (Meg Gibson), the divorced first wife of the same; and George's wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley). The final installment takes place as the family prepares the last supper, or rather the final full family meal in the house that was always home. (All three plays are set in the kitchen, with the women peeling, chopping and cooking the meals--and real food odors wafting through the auditorium.)

Since last we saw her, Patricia has suffered a stroke. She sits quietly, often dozing or perhaps just closing her eyes in pain. (She snaps to whenever she has the opportunity to gently but pointedly needle her less-than-successful middle-aged children. "I always wanted more than that for you" is her mantra.) Patricia is on the verge of death or suicide; it's unclear from her discourse just what she means. At the same time, her children feel the need to absolve Patricia's long-hidden guilt over the mysterious suicide (?) of her just-wed, nineteen-year-old sister, when Patricia was thirteen. (The dialogue refers obliquely but clearly to the play Unnatural Acts: Harvard's Secret Court of 1920, which was produced by the Classic Stage Company in 2011.)

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Roberta Maxwell and Jay O. Sanders in Women of a Certain Age
Photo: Joan Marcus

But the financial catastrophe overwhelms all the Gabriels. George, a carpenter and music teacher, can't make ends meet; Hannah, a caterer, has taken work cleaning rooms in a nearby hotel (where she is the only English-speaking maid); and Mary, a physician who stopped working to take care of her husband during his long terminal illness, discovers that she is unable to renew her medical license--and that her out-of-town daughter from her first marriage has forbidden her to move in. As the play (and the trilogy) ends, Mary hears music playing on the revered family piano in the offstage living room. But they sold the piano in September, in What Did You Expect? Didn't they??

Nelson's writing, as in his earlier and thematically similar Apple Family Plays, is skillful, insightful and steeped in heightened reality. (While the target audience is likely to have little in common with any of the Gabriels--except, perhaps, the deceased Thomas--they will recognize all the characters; you're likely to feel like you are sitting in your family kitchen, interacting and baiting and squabbling with your own grown-up siblings.) The Public has afforded Nelson the unprecedented opportunity to write and direct these two cycles, a total of seven plays over seven years, with each cycle populated by an impressive and devoted cast. (The married couple of Plunkett & Sanders appeared in all the plays, as Apples in the first four and Gabriels in the last three.) Nelson, whose other work includes Two Shakespearean Actors and The Dead, has responded with two altogether brilliant play cycles.

The family--or, rather, the cast--is exceptional. Sanders is marvelous as a modern-day blue collar male treading water, the virtual head of the Gabriel family (in the absence of his deceased brother) who is well aware that he is incapable, frozen in place. Warren (as the sister) and Hawley (as George's wife) give strong performances, as does Gibson (as the ex-wife, thrust into the plays like a distrusted outsider). Maxwell has perhaps the most challenging job; she is only briefly present in the first play, and silently suffering throughout the third. Even so, she makes it plain that her character's fingerprints are all over the rest of the Gabriels. (You might catch--depending upon where you sit--a marvelous moment in which her smile, after a sardonic joke, freezes into a severe wince.)

The capstone of Women of a Certain Age--and the entire Gabriel and Apple series--is Ms. Plunkett. A talented actress who made a startlingly good dramatic debut in 1982 as Amanda Plummer's replacement in Agnes of God and shortly thereafter revealed musical abilities in Me and My Girl (winning the Best Actress in a Musical Tony in the process), our attention almost seems to have been riveted to Plunkett throughout the Gabriel plays. This might be intentional on the author's part, or not; in any event, Plunkett makes Mary so real and her problems so immediate that actor and character seem the heart of The Gabriels.

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Roberta Maxwell and Maryann Plunkett in Women of a Certain Age
Photo: Joan Marcus

Following the run of Women of a Certain Age, the full Gabriel trilogy will be presented at the Public on five marathon dates in December; and the productions will transfer to Kennedy Center starting January 7, 2017. The plays are not to be missed, while Nelson's hand-picked band of sterling actors will be missed.
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Richard Nelson's Women of a Certain Age opened November 8, 2016 and continues through December 4 at the Public Theater. The Public has also scheduled five marathon days presenting the three Gabriel plays, December 10 through 18