The American theatre has a long tradition of family plays. After all, playwrights are always being told to "write what you know," and almost all of us have a family that drives us crazy to some extent. The tradition ranges from Long Day's Journey Into Night
to August: Osage County
, taking in such variants as the Southern sisters of Crimes of the Heart
, the dignified clan in Life with Father
, the rowdy anarchy of You Can't Take It With You
, and the jokey but supportive clan in Neil Simon
's Brighton Beach plays. It's almost a formula: gather the clan around the dinner table and let the betrayals, secrets, and accusations fly. It can be high drama, heavy melodrama, or low comedy.
's Sweet and Sad
is a different animal altogether. There are no yelling matches or twisted family secrets; instead, it's a simpler tale of a family's daily lives and how they are changed by world events. The play takes place on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Barbara Apple and her cousin, Marian, are both teachers, and their school is presenting a concert to commemorate the event. Uncle Benjamin, a former actor now afflicted with a growing memory loss, is to read a poem at the concert. Marian's brother, Richard, has come to the event alone, without his wife and children, while their sister, Jane, has brought her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Tim.
The play begins simply. Marian and Barbara set the table. The guests arrive and are greeted. Food and wine are brought from the kitchen. Conversations begin, end, and meander just as they would at any family gathering. The chatter begins idly, with discussions of train schedules and food preferences, and a handful of in-jokes we don't always get (which is fine - it establishes the family relationships). Gradually they talk about other, deeper topics - a few hurt feelings, some family disagreements - and then the conversation turns political. Nelson has structured the play deftly; we're drawn in by the lighter topics and become so comfortable with the characters that we don't even notice the gentle shifts in tone. To be honest, I completely forgot I was watching a play. The actors disappear into their roles, and the dialogue is so natural, filled with the interruptions, unexplained digressions, and inside references that you'd expect to hear at a family dinner, that I felt like a fly on the wall.
Director Scott Yarbrough has staged the play in a deceptively simple way. The characters get their food, sit around the room, and talk, occasionally getting up for a second helping or a quick break, but I never felt like I was watching a performance. At the end, as the characters clean up in preparation to leave, I didn't want them to go. Set designer Tal Sanders and lighting designer Kristeen Crosser have created a lovely, lived-in home that the characters inhabit comfortably.
Sweet and Sad
is the second in a series of plays about the Apple family, and these actors are all veterans of that production. Clearly they developed a familial bond, because their interaction here is utterly natural and unshowy; when they tell each other stories, you can see each react in an individual way. They're all in character at all times, and the relationships all feel like they've been honed over time. All the performances are exceptional in their quiet ways. Maureen Porter
's Marian is grieving, and she papers it over with a sad smile, holding on to the character's fragile dignity as tightly as possible, and she's all the more touching for never letting it break. Jacklyn Maddux
's Barbara comes across initially as a ditzy maternal type, but we gradually come to know her sadness and anger. Bruce Burkhartsmeier finds the laughs in Benjamin's confusion, but also finds the frustration, and when he finally reads his poem it's a beautiful moment. Michael O'Connell keeps the more buttoned-up Richard from turning into a villain or a patsy; his political viewpoint is different from the others', but he lets us see the pain that's changed Richard's mind. Rebecca Lingafelter
presents Jane as a bit controlling, but we gradually get to know the pain that makes her that way. And Isaac Lamb
's Tim, the relative outsider in the group, brings good humor and sportsmanship to his role, even when his character is being embarrassed.
This is a phenomenal cast in a wonderful play, adroitly staged and unforgettable. Go see the show, and bring along your loved ones. You can all have dinner together afterwards and talk about it.