After more than three months of home sequestering, the Apple family is still hanging in there. But its resilience is ever-so-fragile and further frayed in “And So We Come Forth,” the latest up-to-date entry in Richard Nelson’s extraordinary, intimate saga.
For its second live-streamed session — again making the case for this fresh expression of art-making — Nelson’s homegrown panorama explores new ground as the coronavirus pandemic further takes its toll on this middle-class, well-educated family living in Rhinebeck, N.Y. But it goes beyond the initial shock and confusion of physical estrangement in their everyday lives, reflecting on a deepening sense of change that challenges the fundamentals of a family — and a nation.
These characters — which Nelson first depicted in his four-play Apple series, presented at New York’s Public Theater from 2010 to 2013 — have always mirrored, in minute and indirect ways, the changing world beyond their safe haven in the Hudson Valley. But this time, outside dynamics loom even larger as the four adult siblings share a virtual family dinner where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the rumbling of a not-too-distant, seismic societal shift.
The siblings are joined on-line by the partner of one of them who is visiting his daughter in Brooklyn for a socially distanced graduation party. But it’s a generational distance that is adding to the Apples’ sense of unease, if not dread, as they see their children and students moving away from them in ways they never imagined.
Once again, Nelson, who also directed his brilliant ensemble of actors, begins the Zoom call with small talk about take-out food real estate. But things are even more tense than the last session during the early weeks of the pandemic.
Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a state lawyer in the Cuomo administration, is still pondering retirement as he looks for a new house to live. He continues to stay with oldest sibling Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school English teacher with a penchant for correcting, but they clearly are getting on each other’s nerves. More at ease but with her own private ache is Marian (Laila Robbins), an elementary school teacher who lives alone and finds some comfort in front yard gardening, but yearns for the human touch.
Jane (Sally Murphy), a freelance writer and the youngest of the siblings, is more anxious, germaphobic and hunkered down than ever. Meanwhile, Tim (Stephen Kunken) is dealing with the prospect of returning with his daughter and her troubled friend to the modest home he shares with Jane.
What emerges in these casual-but-telling conversations is the widening generational gap and this quintet’s questioning — especially as the pandemic continues without an end in sight — if there is a place for any of them in the future. Barbara’s graduating students, in a deeply wounding response, suggests not.
And they are not alone. One of their young adult children pointedly remembers a family story from long ago that hints at unconscious racism, never acknowledged. A rigidity of cultural aesthetics is suggested when Barbara scolds, “It’s not music,” to Richard’s innocent humming. A poet’s friend’s artistic legacy is discarded by his heirs and almost lost to the dumpster. Another friend questions the relevance of Faulkner.
But Nelson doesn’t completely abandon this older generation as Barbara quotes a Russian friend who cautions against over zealousness in movements to reform. Still, in the midst of isolation, the social and political upheavals take their toll. “I don’t think I ever felt this old,” says Barbara.
Like the previous Zoom call, Nelson gives balm through the arts, first coming from a hopeful quote by Dante, as his hero exits from hell: “And so we come forth to behold the stars.” It also comes from a gentle piece of Mozart that Barbara listens to, alone, after her family’s screens have turned off. It’s a haunting image as she seemingly contemplates questions without answers.