Chicago Theatre Review
You Don’t Choose Your Family
The Apple Family Plays: – Timeline Theatre
Two years have now passed since audiences visited the Apple family in “That Hopey Changey Thing” (reviewed separately). It’s very early morning on November 6, 2012, the day President Obama would eventually win reelection by a narrow margin. Richard Nelson’s second play in TimeLine’s repertory is connected through two elections (the previous play was set in 2010 during the contentious midterm balloting when the Republicans gained control of the House), as well as through his intimate look at the relationships that drive this family. Featuring the same actors, all but one of the characters from the first play are present. There have been some significant changes in the dynamics of this family, but the love and care between these four siblings and their elderly uncle remains stronger than ever.
High school teacher Barbara Apple is struggling with an emotional decision for which she needs the advice and support from her family. Uncle Benjamin, who has been living with Barbara for the past several years, is a retired actor who earlier suffered a heart attack and, as a result of being in a coma, has experienced recurring memory loss. His condition has been deteriorating and Barbara is beginning to realize that she can’t care for her beloved uncle by herself. In addition, Ben has begun treating her strangely, sometimes acting inappropriately affectionate and often becoming angry and belligerent with her. Racked with guilt, Barbara has decided to relocate her beloved Uncle Benjamin to an assisted living facility. With backing and encouragement from her two sisters, Marian and Jane, and her brother Richard, just returning from a several months in London on business, Barbara tries to sell herself on the importance of this move for everyone.
The mood of this installment of the Apple family chronicles is warmer and more personal than the previous play. Where before Nelson revealed the passions and secrets that motivated this family through their discussions of the day’s political events, this chapter is more about the people, their individual and collective problems and ambitions, with some discussion relating to the election. The family, including Uncle Benjamin, are united, however, in their fears for the future.
As in the previous play, Janet Ulrich Brooks is a standout, playing the family’s matriarch, the eldest sister most responsible for the care and well-being of Uncle Benjamin, as well as for her three siblings. Watching and listening to Ms. Brooks is a lesson in skilled acting, particularly when she’s involved in heated and emotional family discussions regarding everything from how to best care for their amnesiac uncle to national politics. But it’s in her quiet moments that we really observe a master at work. As Barbara listens to and reacts to her family, all the while halfheartedly working a jigsaw puzzle off in the corner, Ms. Brooks‘ face and body language is a study in expert, realistic acting. If acting is believing, Janet Ulrich Brooks is the high priestess of the gospel.
Once more Mike Nussbaum demonstrates his preeminence as one of Chicago’s finest actors. The fact that Mr. Nussbaum is in his 90’s only makes his performance as an aging actor with lapses of memory all the more believable. The fear and confusion found in the actor’s eyes project the terrifying roller coaster ride Uncle Benjamin is experiencing. In those touching moments when Benjamin’s reading from his journal, the audience catches glimmers of the great man beneath the fog of dementia. As he enjoys what will be his last breakfast in his own home, the audience falls in love with this man while empathizing with Barbara for all the conflicting anguish she’s experiencing. Together, these two actors are the best reason for seeing this fine production.
David Parkes‘ Richard Apple is a much more relatable and understandable character in this installment than in the first play. We learn more about his own personal journey and the wife who’s driven him to become who he is now. We also observe a kinder, more generous brother who’s not simply trying to be glib and clever, with his crass jokes and educational bon mots, but is there to help his sisters with a difficult decision. Mechelle Moe’s Jane, without her boyfriend Tim in tow (he’s been cast in a new production in Chicago), is more her own person, as well. She’s matured over the past few years and has more courage to express her own views and feelings. Juliet Hart’s Marian is now divorced and sharing the family home with her older sister Barbara and Uncle Benjamin. She’s now teaching 3rd grade and is also far more independent, seeking new romance and helping Barbara even more with household duties. All three siblings have changed subtly from the characters they were in the last play, set two years ago. These skilled actors, under Louis Contey’s excellent direction, have taken each of the Apple family members to a higher level.
Richard Nelson’s two election year installments of his “Apple Family Plays” are both incredible, with “Sorry” emerging a step ahead as a warm, wonderful, realistic view of middle class America. Seeing these two plays will inspire audiences to want to experience the others in this quartet. Because of Louis Contey’s carefully guided direction, audiences will witness a family (representing a nation) in transition, exemplifying how far we’ve evolved since 2010. The production is both enlightening and entertaining, from its suggestive dining room setting, beautifully designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, to its realistic dialogue, delivered with complete believability by an accomplished cast. Richard Nelson holds a mirror up to America, allowing us to see who we are while understanding just how far we’ve come.
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.