Fact, Fiction or Something in Between? ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ Asks But Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers

(Lindsay Crouse in Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact – Photos by Jason Grow)

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through September 22, is such a work, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production.

The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum piece about Congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however, it must undergo fact checking and there is only the weekend to do it.

Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact checking for a 13-page essay.

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).

D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.

Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.

(Solis, Crouse)

By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised is the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.

Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable? Where do ethics come in? And editorial judgment? Is credible the same as true? Is there an acceptable margin of error in journalism? If so, what is it?

(Crouse, Speedy)

Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational.  Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.

At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.

‘The Lifespan of a Fact –Written by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Composer/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, Scenic Design by J. Michael Griggs. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through September 22.For tickets and information, visit: https://gloucesterstage.com/

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Gloucester Stage’s ‘Ben Butler’ Is Much More Than A Historical Comedy

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson. All Photos by Jason Grow.

By Shelley A. Sackett

On May 23, 1861, smack in the middle of the Civil War, the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United States. The next day, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union-held Fort Monroe, VA, finds himself in an unusual moral and legal pickle. Three escaped slaves have showed up at the fort’s doorstep seeking sanctuary. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, settled federal law since its 1850 enactment, General Butler is required to return them to their owner.

Yet Butler wears more than just his military hat. A silver-tongued lawyer with a reputation as a champion of labor, abolition and naturalized citizens, he is reticent to follow the letter of the law and send the slaves back to the Confederacy. Are they not, after all, people seeking asylum from an oppressive regime? For Butler, this goes way beyond issues of legal or military might; it is a matter that goes straight to the core of who he is (or, is not) as a moral human being. At the same time, he is understandably reticent to rock the boat and sink his own career. Even scarier yet is the idea of leaving his fingerprints all over an incident that could affect the outcome of the war.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

The complicated matter becomes even more so when Butler actually meets Shepard Mallory, the slave who has demanded an audience to plead his case in person. Despite the stark black and white differences in their skin, station and status, the two soon realize they have more in common than not.

Both are expert verbal sparrers, and recognize in the other a familiar spunk and intellect. Both are, at their core, compassionate and humanistic. And bought are caught in the razor-sharp teeth of the cog that fuels the madness that has torn the United States in two.

If this sounds like the stuff of a heart-wrenching, angst-laden script, think again, for playwright Richard Strand has turned the tragic on its head. His lively comedy drives home all the important messages – that slavery is evil, that all humans are created as equals, and that war is bad, for starters – but clothes them in clever repartees and endless rounds of (mostly) delightful verbal gymnastics.

For it turns out that Shepard Mallory is no ordinary man. The runaway slave is literate, literary and able to run legal circles around General Butler who, in truth, is much more of a lawyer than military man. As they joust and brawl, they are shocked and then delighted to discover that they have each finally met their match.

 

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L to R: Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor

 

And this is where Strand’s script – flawed and bloated though it is – is both brilliant and brave. As Butler and Mallory get to know each other, the world’s artifice that separates them melts away. They become kindred spirits, united in their revulsion at the perversity that is at the rotten core of slavery. Strand shows the audience what “all men are created equal” really looks like. This is infinitely more effective and more powerful than a chest-beating diatribe against racism could ever be.

A fast-paced comedy about slavery is dependent on the caliber of its actors, and the Gloucester Stage production rises to the occasion. As Butler, Ames Adamson (who originated the role at the New Jersey Repertory Company and again Off-Broadway at 59E59TH Theatre) is clearly having the time of his life, practically chewing the scenery. He is the eye of the storm and both the audience and his cast mates know it. Shane Taylor holds his own as Mallory, delicately walking a fine line between enlightened erudition and bondage. And Doug Bowen-Flynn, as the by-the-book West Point graduate Lieutenant Kelly, is a perfect foil for Butler’s more nuanced version of life. His transformation from knee-jerk bigot to color blind humanist is masterfully graceful and poignant.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

Some might chafe at the idea of a subject as serious as slavery being handled with a light comedic touch, and in another playwright’s hands, they might be right. In the case of ‘Ben Butler,’ however, Richard Strand has brought home the very serious point that racism is evil and immoral, and let us have a jolly good time nonetheless.

‘Ben Butler’ –Written by Richard Strand; Directed by Joseph Discher; Scenic Design by Greg Trochlil; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Sound Design by Joseph Discher. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through August 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://gloucesterstage.com/

It’s Blue Collar versus Blue Blood in “Gloucester Blue”

By Shelley A. Sackett

Latham (Robert Walsh) closes in on Lexi (Esme Allen).
All photos by Gary Ng

If the purpose of theater is to entertain, Israel Horovitz has hit the nail squarely on the head in Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of his latest Gloucester-based play, “Gloucester Blue”. The founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, who directs this production, introduced his new play last Saturday evening to a packed house that greeted him with affection and applause.

“Let’s see how you feel after the play,” he said, chuckling.

The internationally honored and acclaimed playwright need not have worried. His black comedy with more twists and turns than Route 127 left the audience cheering amid thunderous clapping.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

In a nutshell, a young super wealthy couple (Lexi Carrington and Bradford Ellis IV, aka “Bummy”) is restoring an abandoned former fishing cannery in Gloucester’s Fort area as their summer home and display space for their collection of antique cars. They hire local housepainter, Stumpy, to do the renovation. He in turn hires a friend-of-a-friend, Latham, when the couple wants the house in move-in condition earlier than they originally planned. Both workmen are from solid blue-collar backgrounds and grew up in the working waterfront neighborhood of Eastern Point.

The play opens with Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) and Latham (the electrifying Robert Walsh, whose performance is worth the price of admission) in the drop cloth-draped attic loft where they get to know each other as they plaster and spackle. Although they are kindred souls geographically, their spirits are anything but.

Stumpy favors National Public Radio and Latham, at least ten years his senior, is an Aerosmith devotee. In one of dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, Latham says, “NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” First impressions prove deceiving throughout “Gloucester Blue”, and Latham’s unrefined patter belies a keen sense of observation and a razor sharp sense of self-preservation.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

The boisterous banter changes the instant Lexi (played by Esme Allen with a perfect, nasal Brahmin clenched jaw) shows up with paint samples. She is a knockout blond patrician clad head to heel in clothes that cost more than Latham and Stumpy’s week’s paychecks combined. From the get go, it is clear there is more than an employer-employee between her and Stumpy.

As Lexi complains to Stumpy about being sexually harassed earlier in the week, Latham relishes insulting Lexi as he mocks Stumpy. “I remember when harass was two words,” he says, clearly enjoying watching them squirm. Stumpy and Lexi get the upper hand when they ignore Latham and dash into the bedroom to “discuss renovation details.”

Latham continues to work, doing a slow burn that glows hotter with each passing minute. When Lexi’s husband, Bummy (played as a defeatist milquetoast by Lewis D. Wheeler) arrives, you can almost smell Latham’s scheming brain start to work overtime.

In addition to adultery, the noir-ish play brings in humor, a choreographed fight, blackmail, murder and betrayal. The plot coils and curls as secrets are spilled and transformed into lies and mayhem.

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Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler) gets a pointer from Latham.

The first half of the first act drags a bit as Stumpy and Latham establish their characters and stake their ground. Part of the problem is Solorzano’s flat and un-nuanced performance as Stumpy. Fortunately, Walsh is up to the task of taking up the slack. He brings physicality, impeccable timing and a believable delivery to Latham. Likewise, the choreographed fight between the two Gloucester workmen overstays its welcome.

Act two is another story, meandering into ridiculous plot twists and comedic staging. At times, it feels like we have wandered into a completely different play, one that resembles “Fractured Fairy Tales” form the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” more than a philosophical observation of class warfare between the 99- and 1-percenters.

“Gloucester Blue” is full of introspection, clever dialogue and inventive story lines. Most importantly, however, it is exceptionally entertaining. No doubt, its run in its home town will be as rousting a success as its previous runs in theaters in New York, Washington and Florida.

 

“Gloucester Blue” runs through October 3 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. Following the 2 p.m. performances Sunday, Sept. 20 and 27, audiences are invited to free post show discussions with the artists. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

 

Lost in Place, Stuck in Time

Pictured above: Clara (Marya Lowry) puts the finishing touches on Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) as Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) lends support. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)

“By their nature people are talkers,” declares Breda, one of three sisters who live their cloistered lives behind the closed door of a cottage on the rugged Irish seacoast. But for Breda and her sister Clara, who have withdrawn from the world and lassoed their younger sister, Ada, into joining them, talking is more than an innate trait: it is also the glue that fixes them to each other and to a shared adolescent moment forty years ago that was so painful and humiliating, it literally stopped their developmental clock.

In Gloucester Stage’s splendid production of Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom,” playing through August 15, director Robert Walsh (no relation) casts a believable, macabre spell over a cramped room where memory reigns and lives are unlived.

Breda, played with her usual spot-on gestures and intonation by the stellar Nancy E. Carroll, was the village “bad girl” in her youth. When a teen idol singer came to the local1950’s dance hall, the New Electric Ballroom, she, along with all the other young girls trapped in the fishing village, dreamed of escaping their dismal fate by latching onto his coattails. Her younger and more innocent sister Clara (an equally convincing Marya Lowry) fell under the same spell. The two, however, did more than just dream; they acted.

Both went to his dressing room after the performance, believing his sweet talk and promises. Both suffered unspeakable grief and mortification when they were rejected. However, rather than picking themselves up and carrying on, something in them snapped, tethering them to that moment for the rest of their lives.

Now in their sixties, the sisters spend their day as they have everyday for the last forty years: by reenacting every anguished moment of that encounter. Their younger sister, Ada (Adrianne Krstansky, heartbreakingly understated), who is in her forties and works at the local fish-packing plant, is stage manager and costume and sound designer for their play within a play.

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Above: Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) square off over tea time. (Photo Credit:  Gary Ng)

Each day, Breda and Clara ceremonially don the clothes and make up they wore that fateful night in a ghoulish reminder of Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” In what feels like a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and a sadistic sacred sacrament, they take turns describing in painful detail the events of that night and then relive the shame and disappointment that followed. They exist in a snow globe, hermetically sealed in a blizzard of debilitating emotion. When Breda declares to the exhausted Clara, “It’s time for you to rest and then we’ll start over,” all hope for a different path leeches away.

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At right: L to R: Patsy (Derry Woodhouse) the fishmonger makes a point with Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) as Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) look on. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)

Patsy (Derry Woodhouse), a fishmonger and the only visitor the sisters have, is a pivotal character in the play, coming to the sisters out of loneliness and a yearning to connect to another human being, however flawed and weird. “In a town of this size, we all have our place and mine was to have no purpose,” he states matter-of-factly. He is both endearing and pathetic as he withstands Breda’s abuse on the faintest possibility that she might invite him in.

When she and Clara finally do just that, the audience and Ada eagerly await Ada’s release from her sisters’ weird spell. This reviewer will not risk being branded a “spoiler” by revealing what happens, but the crucial moments showcase Mr. Woodhouse’s acting chops and bond the four characters in a surprising and indelible way.

The play is not as dreary as it might sound. The strong cast ably keeps the play grounded, despite its tendency to drift into farce and allegory. Under Robert Walsh’s direction and with Jenna McFarland Lord’s economical yet complete set, the characters are alive despite their suspension in time. And once again, Gloucester Stage rises above its summer theater peers, staging the sponge bath scene with real soap and water (and a nearly naked Patsy).

Enda Walsh has penned a smart, funny and lyrical work that subtly reveals its deeper message in a way that lingers and intensifies long after the curtain has come down. Highly stylized, the language at times evokes a dream world, where reality and fantasy merge.

Walsh, who authored the musical Once, garnered the OBIE Playwriting Award, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and the Irish Times Best New Play Award for “The New Electric Ballroom.” With its New England premiere, the Gloucester Stage celebrates yet another home run in its superlative 36th season.

 

“The New Electric Ballroom” runs through August 15 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

Gloucester Stage Company Hits It Out of the Park with “Out of Sterno”

Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).

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Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.

She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.

Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.

Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.

Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.

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Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.

Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.

Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.

Photo_16_8754Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.

The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.

Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.

“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”

Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.

Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)

“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

Summer Stages Beckon

 Even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, there is something summery about the opening day of the summer theater season. The North Shore is blessed with two stellar companies, Gloucester Stage and Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre, that have offered theatergoers the chance to see professional productions without having to traipse into Boston for a combined 97 years.

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.