To watch all three of Richard Nelson’s plays about the Gabriel family in one sitting is to open yourself up to as much pain as pleasure. The pleasure is the total immersion in the lives of a quintessentially American family, much like our own, in the triptych “Hungry,” “What Did You Expect?” and “Women of a Certain Age.” The pain comes from watching them struggle to hold themselves together in a political climate that is downright hostile to families like theirs — and ours.
The Public Theater gave a brief but memorable New York preview (Dec. 10-18) of the upcoming international tour of Nelson’s profoundly moving trilogy, grouped under the banner “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.” Beginning Jan. 3-22 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the tour continues (Feb. 11-18) at the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia. It will end at the Hong Kong Arts Festival Feb. 22-26, having played in two new continents since the previous Nelson trilogy (“The Apple Family”) toured Europe.
The Gabriels will reveal a more anxious, uncertain, and unhappy America than the commanding nation the world is more familiar with. In the third play, the family goes out to vote assuming that Hillary Clinton would be their next president. (“Because the other is unthinkable.”) But by this time, the family, like the country, has been greatly diminished.
All three plays begin with the cast dressing the set, the kitchen of the Gabriels’ house in Rhinebeck. It’s Nelson’s way of telling us that this family works together to build and maintain their home. “Hungry,” the play that opens the cycle, finds them all in a thoughtful mood, having just scattered the ashes of Thomas, the eldest member of the clan, in the Hudson River. Back in the house, everyone’s first thought is food.
Thomas’s mother, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell, a formidable presence), may be the family matriarch, but Thomas’s widow, Mary, is the family’s center of gravity. As played by the marvelous Maryann Plunkett, she’s the heart of the family and the soul of the play. Thomas’s younger brother, George (the stalwart Jay O. Sanders), is a big-hearted guy who makes a modest living as a piano teacher and carpenter. George’s wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley, as steadfast as they come), is his port in a storm, just as sister Joyce (Amy Warren, pure mischief) is the thorn in his side. The odd character out is Thomas’s first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson, a study in silences), an actress and teacher who is quietly insinuating herself back into the household.
Bustling around in their warm kitchen (designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West), the women page through old cookbooks searching for a comforting family meal. But make no mistake: As someone says, “this is about more than cooking.” And so it is, being a metaphor for the household routines and rituals that keep families rooted — in their homes and their communities, and in the customs of their country.
Voting together is one of the traditions of this struggling but proud solid-middle-class family of teachers, doctors, theater people, and, in George’s case, master craftsmen. Although he’s not mentioned by name, Donald Trump hasn’t a prayer with this liberal crowd of Hillary voters. “I’d really like to see a woman president in my lifetime,” one says, with quiet feeling. But as someone else wonders aloud, summing up the hope, fear, and free-floating anxiety in the air, “Don’t you feel that something really bad is going to happen?”
By the second play, “What Did You Expect?,” things are getting dire. Another mortgage on the house and escalating costs for Patricia’s institutional care are a constant strain. Household treasures are being sold for cash and nest eggs are depleted. Mary’s nursing licenses have expired, and without the family piano, George can’t give piano lessons.
And on top of all that, there’s the election. “Please be human, Hillary,” someone pleads. As for Donald Trump: “People are scared. Everyone I know is scared.” “Who are we?” Thomas wrote in his notebooks. “Is this really our country?”
By the time “Women of a Certain Age” opens — like all the plays, on an important election day — the Gabriels are on the verge of destruction. (“We have gone backwards.”) As America votes for the next “president of the free world,” this all-American family is preparing to sell their house and break up. In their unhappy fate can be read the fate of so many other all-American families who lost a job, couldn’t make the house payments, had to borrow from the kids’ college fund, and just gave up.
But Gabriels don’t give up; and as they head for the polls where they expect to be voting for the next president, Hillary Clinton, there’s the stubborn hope that things will change. “Things do work out,” Mary insists. Except when they don’t.