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Theatre in Review: Incidental Moments of the Day (Apple Family Productions)

Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy. Photo: Jason Ardizzone-West

For the finale of his trilogy, The Apple Family: Life on Zoom, Richard Nelson shakes things up -- the right response, one supposes, to this summer of turmoil and fury. The playwright is moving on and, in many cases, so are his characters. This apparent finale introduces changes that could fuel many more chapters of the family saga, leaving one with a melancholy sense of abandonment. Up to the final fadeout, however, the Apples continue to provide an uncanny mirror of the way we live now --constrained, angry, wary, and yet oddly, even defiantly, hopeful.

Each of the Apples -- a tribe of aging, liberal, mildly bohemian siblings -- is dealing with altered circumstances. Big brother Richard has finally retired from his position as a lawyer in the Andrew Cuomo administration and is moving back to Rhinebeck, New York, home to his three sisters. But he is bringing along his lover, Yvonne -- by all accounts, a voluble attention-stealer with an endless fund of theatrical anecdotes. (We never see her; the sisters' skeptical attitude tells all.) Richard has spent the pandemic living with Barbara; now she will be alone again. Marian, like Barbara a solitary schoolteacher, is on her first date since forever; because this is the summer of 2020, she is looking forward to seeing his unmasked face for the first time. Jane, a freelance writer, is separated by circumstances from her boyfriend, Tim. Saddled with his adolescent daughter and her troubled best friend -- his ex-wife is done with parenting for a while -- Tim has retreated to his family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. (The daughter doesn't get along with Jane.) The bad news: He is ensconced in his childhood bedroom. The good news: He can at least wave to his ailing mother through the window of her nursing home.

If you have followed the Apples onstage and online, you are well-versed in their semi-dysfunctional family dynamic: Barbara and Jane gossiping hilariously about Richard's private life; Barbara's determination to stage-manage the family conversation; the rueful shrug with which Tim creates yet another of life's complications. As always, the outside world seeps into the conversation. As a group, they're dealing better with the pandemic -- even Jane, who was showing signs of agoraphobia, is navigating the local grocery store, previously viewed by her as a deathtrap. But politics is always lurking around the edges: Richard's scathing attitude toward Cuomo has come roaring back, and a Bernie Sanders for President sign lurks, forlornly, on Marian's lawn.

Racism is on the agenda, too, with the introduction of a story about a Canadian theatre company accused of ignoring people of color. (This is a lightly fictionalized account of events that unfolded at Robert Lepage's company, Ex Machina.) It is interesting to see how marooned this crew feels, being so far from the center of debate. Tim, who knows whereof he speaks, recalls being moved by a quote from South African playwright Athol Fugard, sending it off to a friend, who writes back, tartly, "Fugard's white."

But the race discussion also cues some gorgeous passages from James Baldwin: "Because even the finest principles may be pulverized by the demands of life...one must find one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright." This is as good a description of the Apples as any. Indeed, Nelson's knack for finding the quote juste is one of his best features. Barbara, recalling having attended a talk about the Marquis de Lafayette's hold over the American people, quotes the speaker as saying "Had a nerve been touched? Or a need? What were all those people looking for? Something they'd lost? Forgotten? Or maybe they were just feeling leaderless?" If there are better words to serve as an epitaph for this lost summer, I haven't heard them.

The actors, under the author's direction, have lived and breathed these roles for so long that they barely seem to be acting. Maryann Plunkett continues to find humor in Barbara's default defensiveness: When asked if she is all right, she responds, alarmed, "Why do you ask me that?" Her easy back-and-forth with Jay O. Sanders continues to marvel. Sally Murphy's Jane -- even in middle age saddled with the awkward manner of a baby stork -- is especially affecting when openly confronting her depression. Stephen Kunken effortlessly signals Tim's deep concern for Jane and their slightly frayed relationship. Laila Robins has little more than a cameo as Marian, but Charlotte Bydwell makes a welcome appearance as Lucy, a dance student on a study trip to France arranged by Barbara. She is beamed in to reprise a solo, set to "Maple Leaf Rag," performed by her in the 2019 Nelson play The Michaels.

The dance piece provides a fine example of the consolations of art, a balm needed more than ever in a world gone wildly awry; it's the key to the profound humanism that has informed the entire Apple cycle. In each of the plays, Nelson has pulled together many incidental moments of the characters' days, arranging them in a pattern that provides a telling comment on the present moment. It's hard to believe we're not going to see them in future installments. Then again, Nelson has said farewell to his characters before, only to bring them back for further commentary on the passing scene. Personally, I think they could help get us through what promises to be an especially jittery election night. -- David Barbour

(14 September 2020)

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