Monday, February 13, 2017

Theatre: The Gabriels (★★★★★)

Public Theatre
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West
Lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton
Sound designed by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens
Featuring Mag Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Amy Warren
Subiaco Arts Centre
Until February 18

Early in What Did You Expect, the second of the trilogy of plays that constitutes Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, we are told a story translated from a Russian play.
Two old men stand outside an apartment block. Through its windows, they can see a happy family enjoying their time together. What the old men know, but the family inside doesn’t, is that the family’s daughter has just drowned in the river.
It’s a moment deeply reminiscent of the “fell swoop” scene in Macbeth, or the playful family scene in The Wild Duck that presages its catastrophe.
It is the fulcrum of The Gabriels, a dagger in the heart of its story. We have been beautifully prepared for it, and events – or the discovery of them – follow swiftly after.
It’s one example of the invisible architecture of this intimate, monumental American masterpiece.

A little background: the playwright, Richard Nelson, wrote these plays to be (originally) performed in real time at the exact moment they occur, specifically from 6 to 8pm on Friday 4 March, 6.30 to 8.30pm on Friday 16 September, and 5 to 7pm on Tuesday 8 November, 2016.
The last date is, of course, that strange, portentious day last November, and the trilogy, subtitled Election Year in the Life of One Family, follows the course of the campaigns up to their conclusion (the curtain goes down one hour before the polls close – it’s interesting to speculate what the next day in the Gabriel household would have been like).
Surprisingly, though, there is no political action, and very little political discussion – politics in the formal sense, anyway – in the plays. Donald Trump is mentioned only once by name (perhaps, like Voldemort, Trump is he-who-must-not-be-named) and, while there is much discussion about the Clintons, it’s most often at a personal rather than political level.
In another sense, the whole story is political, the underlying politics of the destruction of America as a contented, plentiful and secure hearth. This is the politics that Bernie Sanders promoted and Trump perverted. The perpetrators are not black, brown or yellow (the play is set in the small town of Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, which is 95% white), but red in tooth and claw – they are the rich of New York City who head upriver to carpetbag the picturesque hamlets along the Hudson for their weekenders.
They exploit the Gabriels, humiliate them, and, when things go wrong for the family, circle them like buzzards.
The family is an elderly widowed mother, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), her son George (Jay O. Sanders) and daughter Joyce (Amy Warren), George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), and the first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), and third wife and widow, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), of Patricia’s son Thomas, who died of Parkinson’s disease the previous November.
All the action takes place in the kitchen of the Gabriels’ house in Rhinebeck. Almost all of it is simply the family sitting around the kitchen table preparing the meals that conclude each play. 
There is no real conflict between the characters; their love and support for each other are palpable and unwavering (even Thomas’s first and third wives get on – they both say they hate the second). Voices are almost never raised. There is little high emotion. These are sensible, solid people, the people America’s artists painted, whose defining motto, if they have one, is “What Can I Do?”.
The great triumph of these plays is that Nelson and his distinguished cast bring these ordinary people to the stage with complete sincerity and lack of artifice. These actors give not the slightest impression of acting at all. It’s a truly wonderful experience, so unusual that it takes a little while to adjust to.
Once you do, though, you are absorbed into these people’s lives and their story with a completeness I have never experienced; and once in that place, they can do just about anything to you.
There is much laughter in The Gabriels, but of a very unusual kind. The actors’ humour is played to each other, and we laugh with them as we would over dinner with friends, not at a performance. They tell stories. One, about a picnic attended by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne near Rhinebeck must be 10 minutes long. It has a narrative point, but, as an experience, it stands on its own merits like a story a friend might tell you over lunch, and the pleasure it gives is just as extended, and profound.
The Gabriels is a horrifying story, and you can literally feel the sinews of your heart twist as cold reality tightens around these people.
They have made mistakes, but only because the world around them has turned cold, and vicious. They deserve no blame, other than for being old, or innocent, but they must bear the consequences nonetheless.

You leave the theatre after Women of a Certain Age, the conclusion to over five hours of theatre as fine as I’ve ever witnessed, with a genuine fear for the future of these good people.
And for all of us. Go carefully, and stay safe.

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