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BWW Review: Richard Nelson's THE GABRIELS Comes to Kennedy Center By Way of the Public Theater

Maryann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Amy Warren, and Jay O. Sanders in Women of a Certain Age, Play Three of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. Photo by Joan Marcus.

DC theatergoers had their introduction to the Rhinebeck, New York-based Apple Family at Studio Theatre in 2013 and continued to get to know them in 2015. Richard Nelson - author of the four THE APPLE FAMILY plays - now introduces us to their neighbors - the Gabriels in his latest trilogy, which is set during our recent (and, let's just say it, tumultuous) election "year" (really nine months). Coming to the Kennedy Center by way of New York's influential Public Theater, theatergoers have the option to see all three plays over the course of one day (as I did) or over the course of three nights. Either way you do it, it's an engaging and resonant theatrical experience. We see people just like us experiencing life-altering experiences just as we do (the declining health of a parent, the loss of a spouse, economic downturn etc.) set against the backdrop of a changing - and often mystifying - American political landscape.

Nelson has written and directed the three plays - "Hungry," "What Did You Expect?," and "Women of a Certain Age" - that make up THE GABRIELS: ELECTION YEAR IN THE LIFE OF ONE FAMILY, so that the audience gets to intimately experience the everyday conversations in their homey kitchen over the course of three specific days.

The first play, "Hungry," takes place on the evening of March 4, 2016 - the Friday after Super Tuesday when the primaries were in full swing. Although important politically, the day is significant for the family for another reason. Mary Gabriel's (Maryann Plunkett) playwright husband Thomas died after a battle with Parkinson's disease in November and it was now time to spread his ashes on his beloved river. The Gabriel clan has gathered together to celebrate his life and legacy, including his mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), his brother George (Jay O. Sanders), George's wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), his Brooklyn-based artsy sister Joyce (Amy Warren), and his first wife (of three) actress Karin (Meg Gibson) with food and conversation. Underlying tensions simmer - as they would in most large family gatherings where emotions are high - but do not come to a boil. They remember Thomas and years past. Politics enter into the conversation - as they might in any family gathering in this area - but the primary focus is togetherness and recovery.

The political situation has become even tenser on September 16, the day the second play takes place ("What Did You Expect?"). The general election is in full swing so the political scene is even crazier to watch. Life is also a bit more complicated for the Gabriel family. We learn that Karin has moved in with Mary (as a renter) and is helping her go through Thomas' scripts and the like to find anything that might be of value (she's an actress and knows "theatre" more than Mary who is a doctor). Their financial situation is precarious, and the whole family must provide for Patricia who lives in an elderly care center. In this play, the family gets together again and we learn a little more about what life was like for the Gabriel kids growing up (music played a big role), and how Rhinebeck has changed over time as a result of the influx of "weekenders" escaping the city. Politics enter a little bit more into the conversation and everyone laments the direction that the election is taking - on both sides - and what it says about humanity, but largely the focus is on the good and bad times in the past. Tensions continue to bubble up - in part due to financial stress - but nothing that's completely unmanageable.

The third play, "Women of a Certain Age," takes place on election night - November 8, 2016. The family has come together yet again to celebrate Thomas' life with a special meal. It's almost been a year since his passing. Patricia's health is in further decline and the "kids" must cope with this new reality (she recently had a stroke and is still unable to walk though she is in PT). Financial mistakes have left Patricia with an inability to pay for her independent living situation so George and Hannah took money from their son's college fund to pay. The Gabriel's continue to sell off anything of value in the house to make ends meet. George and Hannah are also experiencing financial shortcomings because catering work (Hannah's source of employment) is scant. Hannah has taken on a position as a maid at the local hotel while George continues to give piano lessons and make cabinets. Mary grapples with where to go next, and Karin enters into the dating-but-not world. The political environment is a major source of conversation and centers mostly on who Hillary Clinton "really" is. Still, in comparison to the reminiscing and grappling with "how do we prepare for our uncertain future?," politics play a smaller role. Still, the macro trends and issues at play in the larger country are brought into focus as this singular family grapples with the normal and not-so-normal pressures.

As plays, we might describe Nelson's works as providing insight into human behavior and interaction in the everyday context. As it plays out in front of us, nothing much "happens," but the rich conversations provide a great deal to chew on for those interested in psychological and sociological (and even political) phenomena. The group of actors - all of whom previously performed the plays at the Public - are exceptional. Each is adept with the naturalistic style of acting and the ease with which they interact makes it easy for us to believe they've all known each other forever. With a lesser group of performers, sitting through all of the plays might have been a bit of a slog due to the "talk fest" feel, but in this case it was mostly a pleasure.

While I would have liked to see the plays in a more intimate setting - such as one of Studio's smaller theaters - the design team does its best to transform Kennedy Center's lab space into a makeshift kitchen. Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West's scenic design and Hilferty's costume designs are enormously helpful to establish this everyday house in small town, New York filled with everyday people just living their lives. Only Joyce - the Brooklynite costume designer - and, to some extent Karin, dress somewhat trendy, and Nelson works through their literal and figurative outsider status with much success.

Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens' sound design is appropriate for what Nelson is going for - providing a snapshot in time in the life of one family in the family home. We hear the actors, in their normal voices, carrying out conversations while cooking and going through things that were stuck in the attic for years. Unsightly choir mics, suspended from the ceiling, are probably intended to make it easier for those furthest from the stage to hear, but otherwise, there is no "help." While not the easiest way to listen to a play, I commend Nelson for trying to make the proceedings as realistic and authentic as possible.

Overall, THE GABRIELS is must-see theatre for the discerning theatergoer. The acting alone is something to behold.

Running Time: Each play runs 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

THE GABRIELS plays through January 22 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or purchase them online. Consult the show calendar for specific schedules of each play or the weekend marathons.

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