Chicago Theatre Review
The Family That Votes Together…
The Apple Family Plays: – Timeline Theatre
That Hopey Changey Thing
It’s November 2 in Rhinebeck, New York. The polls are about to close for the 2010 mid-term elections. Gathering around the dinner table to await election results, and for sort of a family reunion, are four siblings, an elderly uncle and an invited guest. Barbara Apple, an unmarried high school English teacher, is hosting the dinner at her family home, which she shares with her Uncle Benjamin, a famous retired actor who, following a recent heart attack that put him in a coma, suffers from frequent memory lapses. Barbara’s middle sister, Marian Apple Pratt is a married, liberal-minded elementary school teacher, while Jane, their younger sister, is a writer of nonfiction literature and has brought her actor boyfriend, Tim, to meet and dine with her family. Also attending this family get-together is their brother Richard Apple, a successful lawyer for the New York State Attorney’s Office. Occurring midway through President Obama’s first term of office, Richard Nelson’s play gives voice to the range of political thought in America at that time.
This play would become the first of a four-play cycle that the playwright would write in response to many contemporary issues, including a personal examination of middle class family values. Nelson’s second play, “Sweet and Sad,” views how the September 11 attacks affected this family ten years after the event; the third play, “Sorry,” presented by TimeLine in repertory with this production (and is reviewed separately), is set on yet another election eve, two years later; the final play in the cycle is called “Regular Singing,” which sees the Apple family responding to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. All four plays, which debuted at The Public Theatre in New York, feature this same American family and is enacted by the same cast members. Seen as a continually evolving microcosm of society, the plays portray this household as a work in continual progress, set against recent current events from this decade.
As history has shown, the Democratic Party suffered their biggest losses in that election since the Great Depression, with Republicans recapturing more House seats than in decades and boosting their Senate minority status by six members. 29 states also elected GOP governors, as well. Despite little significant shifts in party allegiance, the growth of the Independents were attributed to this election result. These issues are discussed and debated by the family and their guest, all of whom express their individual views.
But lest prospective theatergoers imagine that this a play that’s overwrought with politics and that past events that don’t matter any more, rest assured. Nelson has skillfully written a story about how contemporary families relate, discuss and live their lives. It’s about the family as a unit, but also explores the hopes, dreams and experiences of each individual. The events of November 2, 2010 just happen to be the catalyst for all manner of discussions, meditations and recollections. It’s a beautiful one-act play that holds a mirror up to who we are.
Janet Ulrich Brooks, one of only a handful of area actresses whose name assures excellence in everything she does, is brilliant as Barbara Apple. Listening to the actress, the audience may almost believe that Ms. Brooks is voicing her own ideas and speaking her mind, but this is the trait of a great actor. Nelson may have written her role, but Ms. Brooks inhabits Barbara, completely. Her posture, her words, indeed, even her silences, the meaningful looks she gives her brother and sisters, as well as the tender care she heaps upon Uncle Benjamin–all of these elements create one very realistic, three-dimensional character.
If Ms. Brooks‘ Barbara isn’t enough motivation to see this excellent production, then the superb casting and portrayal of Uncle Benjamin by America’s “oldest living and working stage actor” should seal the deal. Mike Nussbaum, another actor who’s excellent in every role he undertakes, leaves it all on the stage in this role. His role takes him from moments of frustrating confusion and forgetfulness to speeches filled with insight, thought-provoking regrets and heartbreaking reminiscences. Mr. Nussbaum, who wears his role like an expertly tailored suit, makes Benjamin warm and wise and truly wonderful.
Each of the other actors in this terrific cast shine like the sun. Juliet Hart’s Marian is ever-hopeful, always pushing her political and personal agenda, always seeking to be heard and taken seriously. Mechelle Moe’s Jane quietly observes for most of the play, saying very little to give away her feelings. Eventually, however, when she finally speaks up and shares with her family, Jane voices many of the same views held by her brother. She’s nicely complemented by TimeLine’s Artistic Director, PJ Powers, playing her boyfriend, Tim. Mr. Powers has some especially tender moments with Mr. Nussbaum as they discuss the acting profession and recall a play reading given by Uncle Benjamin; Powers‘ scene in which he accidentally lets the dog escape is both funny and realistic. David Parkes‘ Richard Apple is funny and strong, clearly worshipped by his sisters as their favorite sibling. Mr. Parkes brings a comic, long-practiced superiority to his role, the kind of performance illustrating that the actor truly understands the subtle dynamics that exist within family relationships.
This play can certainly stand on its own as a portrayal of the American family in transition; however, when viewed as the first installment of Richard Nelson’s carefully thought out, wonderfully written dramatic quartet, it gives audiences a deep sense of who these people are and where they’re going. Seeing both plays, especially within the same day, makes a visit with the Apples all the more meaningful and memorable.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 24-April 19 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-281-8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.