To speak or not to speak — that’s the question behind “Sweet and Sad,” the second play in Richard Nelson’s projected trilogy about the Apple family. Directed with extreme delicacy by the playwright and flawlessly performed by the same cast that originated the characters (in “That Hopey Changey Thing”), the play takes place on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and gravely observes this politically liberal family struggling to maintain its moral equilibrium in a world that no longer reflects its values. The talking points are provocative — if not as poignant as the things they can’t bring themselves to say.
There’s nothing like a family meal to keep people from talking about what’s really on their minds. Between setting the table and clearing the table (which is essentially the time span of the play), there are dozens of opportunities to keep the Apples from having open, honest discussions.
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Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school teacher who lives with her uncle Benjamin (John DeVries) in Rhinebeck, is most adept at such delaying tactics as pouring the wine and bringing out the dessert. “Is today really a day to talk politics?” she anxiously asks, when brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a corporate lawyer who now works for the enemy on Wall Street, shows a tendency to question the Democratic party line.
Marian (Laila Robins), who recently moved in with her uncle and sister, simply leaves the dinner table and buries herself in a Harry Potter novel whenever one of her siblings wonders where her husband is or makes sympathetic noises about her daughter, who committed suicide.
Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), the third sister in this Chekhovian family pod, is a journalist and actually seems receptive to brother Richard’s soul-searching. But when he wonders out loud whether it might be time to stop public observances of 9/11, it’s Jane who jumps up to get the coffee.
Nelson the playwright has taken infinite care composing these aborted conversations. Working with great assurance on Susan Hilferty’s homey set and under Jennifer Tipton’s rich lighting, Nelson the director presents these interlocking exchanges in geometrically precise patterns.
Not every bit of this spare, highly naturalistic dialogue is left up in the air. From time to time, and especially at the end of the play when the family prepares to leave for a 9/11 memorial service, someone manages to complete a thought or respond to something that has been said.
Tim (Shuler Hensley), the actor-waiter who lives with Jane in Manhattan and is a perfect fit in this family, stands his ground on a few politically touchy points. He even dares to question the justification for designating the victims of 9/11 as “heroes” — a subject that Barbara also raises in the challenging list of topics she has presented to her students.
Once the conversational ball starts rolling, Richard even dares to speak critically of President Obama and his “compromised” principles, which, having been compromised, are no longer “principles.”
These are smart, thoughtful people, and there’s something “sweet and sad” indeed about their wavering faith in their compromised principles. But not one of them offers anything as profoundly moving as the Walt Whitman poem honoring the victims of the Civil War that comes at the end of the play.
The reading of the poem is assigned to Uncle Benjamin, a noted actor who lost much of his memory after a heart attack, but is fit enough to deliver the reading at the memorial service. Like the tiny stroke that has clouded Richard’s vision, Uncle Benjamin’s amnesia represents something deeper: the loss of the family’s shared history. As Jon DeVries delivers the verses, with utter simplicity, the pain of their collective loss hangs in the air — and then moves on.