Under the skillful direction of Weylin Symes, Gloucester Stage, in collaboration with Stoneham Theatre, opens its season with “Sweet and Sad”. The production introduces us to the five members of the fictional Apple family, who are at the center of four plays by American playwright Richard Nelson. “Sweet and Sad” is the second in the chronological series. All are set in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and all focus on either an election or a significant historical anniversary.
In “Sweet and Sad”, the Apple family assembles uncomfortably on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (the New York Public Theater opening night was actually September 11, 2011). Although the family members — siblings Marian, Barbara, Jane and Richard, and their Uncle Benjamin — spend less time talking about the events of 9/11 than their own personal histories, the significance of the day officially devoted to loss and remembrance casts an indelible shadow.
Even though Barbara (Karen MacDonald whose nuanced performance brings to mind Diane Wiest at her finest), a schoolteacher whose Rhinebeck home hosts the family brunch, early on states that the day is not one to talk politics, the reason for the gathering is to attend a commemoration her students will perform that evening. Uncle Benjamin, who moved in with caretaker Barbara after his brilliant acting career was cut short by a heart attack that left him amnesiac, will read Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”.
Marian, also a teacher, has just moved in with Barbara, seeking refuge from a recent separation from her husband. Manhattanites Richard, a Wall Street lawyer, and Jane, a writer, round out the family. Tim, Jane’s sometimes boyfriend and an actor currently relegated to waiting tables, walks the fine line between blending in and being unobtrusive.
It’s hard to know where to start praising this production.
The lights rise on a large set that makes good use of the entire stage and yet also creates an intimate dining room setting for the family to share a late lunch and squabble. Each actor embodies his role with a stunning naturalism, breathing life and depth into his role. The same cast staged the first of the four-part Apple family plays, “Hopey Changey,” earlier at Stoneham Theater, and their obvious comfort with each other is the stuff stellar ensemble acting is all about. They are so physically at ease that the audience really does feel like it’s eavesdropping on a family reunion.
Symes, producing director at Stoneham, brings a light but quirky touch to the show, allowing the characters to explore their characters’ eccentricities and individuality without jeopardizing the cohesive fabric of their shared histories. Watching the siblings interact as adults, you can imagine what they must have been like as kids. And having the actors really eat real food (in some cases going back for seconds) is nothing short of brilliant.
Which brings us last, but hardly least, to Nelson’s script. In fewer than two intermission-less hours, he lets us through the keyhole to glimpse a family’s most perilous secrets while making us think about such broad and weighty topics as: the roles of memory and memorials; what drives young people to suicide; and the state of the nation. The characters overlap and interrupt and answer for each other with the familiarity of broken thoughts and familial patterns. We witness the passive-aggressive, judgmental and ultimately supportive Apple family dance. His dialogue (and its flawless delivery) points to as much what is not said as to what is.
The only time all the Apples manage to sit still and listen quietly is when Uncle Benjamin practices reading “The Wound-Dresser”. Whitman’s poem is a tribute to the memory of the Civil War soldiers he tended during his time as a nurse, but when we hear, “I sit by the restless all the dark night; some are so young, some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,” he could be talking about the Apple family today.
Pictured at top: Karen MacDonald (Barbara Apple) makes her sisterly point with Laura Latreille (Jane Apple Halls).
(Photo by GARY NG)
“Sweet and Sad” is at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St. through June 20. For tickets, go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.