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Theatre in Review: And So We Come Forth (Apple Family Productions)

Clockwise from top left: Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Stephen Kunken, Laila Robins. Photo: Jason Ardizzone-West.

The Apple Family, of Rhinebeck, New York, is back, offering both much-needed comfort, along with a few thoughts to keep one up at night. Richard Nelson's clan, seen in a quartet of plays at the Public between 2010 and 2013, appeared once again, in What Do We Need to Talk About?, a chamber piece for Zoom, three months ago. The latest installment, like the others, is so fresh it feels like it was written a couple of hours before viewing. (You can catch the play for the next several weeks at the URL listed below.) It's hard to think of another American playwright better equipped to distill the confused emotions of this strange moment.

And So We Come Forth finds the Apples having a dinner together on Zoom; it is three months after New York went into lockdown and things have improved, marginally. The characters are getting out of the house a bit, working in their yards, picking up meals from local restaurants, and even making modest trips. Richard is still living with his sister, Barbara, with whom he bickers, affectionately, 24/7; he is also shopping for a house of his own. Barbara, a schoolteacher and professional nudge, is sending out emails filled with advice to her former students, who are practicing their own form of social distancing from her. Marian is at home alone, working in her garden, although the others gossip gleefully after her "gentleman caller," who walks his dog past her house a suspiciously high number of times a day. Jane is at home alone, too, because Tim, her partner, is in Brooklyn, attending his daughter's impromptu Zoom high school graduation ceremony; he is also underfoot with his ex-wife and her new husband. In the play's most obvious source of conflict, Tim feels honor-bound to bring back to Rhinebeck his daughter (who is a source of tension for her mother and stepfather) and her best friend (who is avoiding her combative parents); it's a decision that thoroughly rattles Jane, who doesn't want her fragile peace disturbed.

As usual with the Apples, the conversation wanders, amusingly, all over the place; topics include the Internet game Animal Crossing, Richard's plans to write a book, and juicy historical gossip about Rhinebeck: Among other things you'll learn that Daisy Suckley, allegedly one of Franklin Roosevelt's paramours, and Lorena Hickock, long believed to be Eleanor's consort, are buried in almost scandalous proximity in the town cemetery.

But beneath all the chatter, deeper, darker feelings lurk, appearing in unexpected bursts. Richard tells a story about an Albany colleague whose old friend dies, leaving behind a trove of poems and letters from a literary life about which his sons were unaware; this anecdote becomes a powerful parable of life's fragility. Barbara talks about a Russian friend who, with her husband, plays a nightly game involving cocktails and questions. The first of the latter -- "What kind of country should we have?" -- triggers a most pregnant pause. Marian recounts the heartbreaking fate of a young Mexican student who arrived in the US days before lockdown and whose aunt has taken ill, leaving him with nowhere to go. The silence with which this story is greeted speaks volumes about the helplessness felt these days by the even the best-intentioned among us. Most melancholy of all is Marian's admission that she has not been physically touched for more than three months; left unspoken is the question: How much longer will this state of affairs endure?

By this point, the actors have inhabited their roles for so long and so well that they seem indistinguishable from their characters. Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett spar wittily as Richard and Barbara; this time around, however, his mildly satirical tone gives way to deeper soundings of sadness, and there's something eerie about how, alone, she contemplates her laptop screen, as if staring into some kind of void. Laila Robins' Marian is a little less pointed than in previous appearances, more overtaken by an ineffable sense of loss. Sally Murphy, her frazzled hair and enormous glasses giving her the demeanor of an extremely anxious owl, is an incisive portrait of free-floating anxiety. As Tim, the outsider who has become an insider, Stephen Kunken provides a welcome breeze of wit and sanity throughout; he is also possessed of excellent listening skills, an infallible sign of a fine actor.

Previous installments of the Apple Family saga have made use of Nelson's skill at evoking sibling aggressions, but this one, more than most, finds them clinging to each other for dear life. The extended signoff is unexpectedly touching, as is the quoted bit of Dante that provides the play's title. We may (or, based on today's headlines, may not) be coming out of our own national purgatory, but what comes next is a question left dangling, agonizingly. By giving voice to the anxieties and angers felt by so many these days, Nelson's characters have become old friends; they're a pleasure to catch up with anytime. Note to the Apples: See you in September? -- David Barbour www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY2p-CDNnYM

(6 July 2020)

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