Is Uncle Benjamin still alive? Are Marian and Adam back together? Has Richard gone over to the dark side and become a Republican? And is everyone agreed that this country has gone to hell in the past 50 years? These are matters of grave concern in the Apple family plays, Richard Nelson’s brainy soap opera for angst-ridden liberals. “Regular Singing,” the fourth and final play, takes place on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination (Nov. 22, 2013), so the topic of death hangs in the air. But in the end, the scribe leaves the Apples the way he found them — very much alive and bearing witness to the times we live in.
A core system of values — call it liberal or humanitarian or Democratic — secures the family bond. Whatever you call this belief system, it’s always invoked and often challenged on the historic occasions observed in the plays: the mid-term election of 2010 (“That Hopey Changey Thing”), the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (“Sweet and Sad”), the 2012 Presidential election (“Sorry”), and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination (“Regular Singing”). For a family as engaged as the Apples, these are all times that try men’s souls.
But scribe and helmer Nelson is no ham-handed polemicist. The Apples themselves are his subject, and the historic events they witness are reflected in their lives. Taking President Obama to task before reluctantly going out to vote for him is one way to express their political alienation. But their ambivalence about putting Uncle Benjamin in a nursing home dramatically illustrates the same conflicted loyalties. In the same way, the death of a beloved child, a tragedy Marian must cope with in “Sweet and Sad,” connects her to all the mourners grieving for loved ones who died in the World Trade Center.
In “Regular Singing,” Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries) is still with us and looking surprisingly well for someone whose mind is slipping away, so we don’t have to suffer the trauma of saying goodbye to that dear old friend. Nonetheless, a keen sense of loss pervades the play, which, like all the “Scenes from Life in the Country” in this Chekhovian play cycle, takes place in the family home in Rhinebeck, NY, shared by Barbara Apple (Maryann Plunkett), a high school English teacher, and her younger sister, Marian (Laila Robins), who teaches third grade.
On the most immediate level, there is actual death in the house. Marian’s estranged husband, Adam (a character we’ve never met and never will), is in an upstairs bedroom dying of cancer. Friends have been calling all day to make their farewells, and the family is sitting at the dining room table picking at the leftover refreshments and preparing the funeral service. (As was the case in the previous plays, Susan Hilferty provided the lived-in set and costumes, warmed up by Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive lighting design.)
Anyone who has been following the ups and downs of the Apple family over the past four years must also deal with a figurative but still painful death — the impending loss of these companionable characters we’ve grown to know and like. And since the same tight ensemble of superlative actors has returned almost every year to play the same roles, the hurt is compounded by having to give them up, too.
The pangs of separation were obviously felt by Nelson, who has taken special care here to draw his more wayward characters back to the family hearth. After years of living (and failing to make it) in Manhattan, youngest sister Jane (Sally Murphy), a writer, and her longtime boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor, have given up hope of finding work in their redundant professions and moved back to Rhinebeck.
And then there’s Richard (Jay O. Sanders), the brother on whom all the sisters dote, still symbolically presiding at the head of the table. A corporate lawyer who has always worked in the city, Richard likes to play the role of the visitor — the favored child who periodically returns home bearing word from the world that lies outside the domestic dome.
Richard has given us all some grief over the past years, especially in “Sweet and Sad,” when he was working for a Wall Street firm and balking at the Democratic party line. But he’s back in the liberal fold here, living in Albany and working for Governor Andrew Cuomo. That’s exactly where he was in the first play, “That Hopey Changey Thing,” doing legal stuff for Cuomo in the state attorney general’s office. “I have jumped into the muck,” he declares about his return to politics. “I just hope I can float.”
In each of the plays there is always some unself-conscious discussion of the specific political issue that’s on their minds. It certainly helps that Barbara, the high-school teacher, makes a point of working current affairs into her lesson plans. In “Sweet and Sad,” she presents her students (and her siblings) with a challenging list of discussion topics about 9/11, including the justification for designating victims as “heroes.”
In the aptly-titled “Sorry,” the suggestion is made that, before they go out to vote, they address the President as if he were in their own living room. “How did you, the voice of our better selves, begin appealing to our hates?” Richard wants to know. Jane is upset by the way that vicious partisan politics has alienated an entire generation. Like divorcing parents, “they hate each other and they’re screaming at each other,” and then they demand that the kids pick a side.
As might be expected in a family pod containing a lawyer, two schoolteachers, two actors, and a writer, the Apples are an unusually articulate bunch. We hear onstage reports that even Marian’s husband, Adam, rouses himself on his deathbed to speak of how Colonial-era Americans got into a civil war about the proper protocol for group singing. “Nothing’s changed [in] America,” he says of the conflicts that keep people from singing — and living — in harmony.
As the title of the final play indicates, singing together (and reciting poetry and reading out loud to one another) is as natural to this cultured household as arguing politics. And although he speaks the least, Uncle Benjamin is the most eloquent orator in this household. A celebrated actor in his day, the old man may be losing his memory, but he hasn’t lost his voice. In “Sweet and Sad,” he has the last word about the national trauma of 9/11 — and about all the other losses we’ve shared as a country — by reciting the Walt Whitman poem honoring the victims of the Civil War.
Here, he returns us to Chekhov by reciting, from “The Cherry Orchard,” uncle Gaev’s heartbreaking farewell speech to a beloved bookcase — and to all the past and future losses families must bear together at the death of a hero and the end of an era.