Review: ‘The Gabriels’ at the Kennedy Center

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For those who are familiar with Richard Nelson’s 4-play cycle, The Apple Family Plays, his The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, now on stage at the Kennedy Center’s Lab Theatre, will sound and appear familiar. Rhinebeck (New York), a “slice-of-life” dramatic structure, an older family member in need of comfort and care, as well as plenty of slicing and dicing and frying.

Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley, and Amy Warren in What Did You Expect? Photo by Joan Marcus.

Still more will only seem familiar, however, but not really be so: namely, the much publicized contemporary American politics about which the passionate argue, will in The Gabriels be low-key at best; for, despite the certainty of the subtitle, The Gabriels has less to do with the fever of politics than it does with the death of the warm, the decent, the caring, “traditional” American family.

Hence, for audience members looking for your typical dysfunctional family with quirky, irritating characters engaged in a flurry of dramatic shouting matches, I’m afraid they’ll have to look elsewhere. They’ll find no “rage, rage against the dying of the light” within these five hours.

Lynn Hawley and Maryann Plunkett in Hungry. Photo by Joan Marcus.

No, this play’s a eulogy to a dead patriarch: well, not really a patriarch, but more like the “success” of the family, the eldest son Thomas, the one everyone admired, the one everyone looked up to, and “at” for guidance.

And yes, I’m not calling The Gabriels three separate plays because, unlike the four Apple Family Plays, which could, if need be, stand up on their own 90 minutes, these one-acts (“Hungry”, “What Did You Expect”, and “Women of a Certain Age”) are most definitely an interlinked unit. And that’s why they are offered as a full-day marathon at The Kennedy Center.

Director and Playwright Richard Nelson has filled the stage with a remarkably “natural” domestic space, resonant with intricately woven dialogue that captures the essence of everyday speaking and living and loving. It’s almost as if with these plays, Nelson has perfected his naturalistic style. Thus, we, the audience, can eavesdrop on an Gabriel family-gathering, or three separate Gabriel-gatherings and ponder what we will.

The four younger women–Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), Hannah Gabriel (Lynn Hawley), Joyce Gabriel (Amy Warren), and Karin Gabriel (Meg Gibson)–prepare meals.

Play 1 follows the spreading of the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, husband of Mary and ex-husband of Karin.

The matriarch of the Gabriels, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) begins the play at the beginning of her descent into aging. She’s recently moved into an assisted living complex.

And I mustn’t forget the sole representative of masculine attire in the show, George Gabriel (Jay O. Sanders), husband of Hannah and son of Patricia.

The entire ensemble does a remarkable job portraying human beings at ease within a loving domestic sphere. And yes, nothing could be more rare than such a space. How many plays have offered audiences such caring, supportive characters?

Not even Our Town comes close. Although a bit suspicious of outsiders at the play-cycle’s beginning, by the end even the homeless would feel welcome. (And I mean that, literally.)

To be sure, the election between Hillary and Donald hovers in the background, occasionally popping up its head for a line sequence or two, but never to much effect. These characters lack that kind of passion, the one that might have filled your Facebook page for over the last 8 months or so.

These Gabriels, in their north of New York Rhinebeck, have grown relatively powerless over the years. Their lack of agency over their lives as well as their lack of control over their finances form the background for the play’s dramatic interests.

Not beset by internal or inner-familial strife, this family is threatened from the outside by an invisible “them”, “spooks” of the economic system who convince the “unenlightened” to re-asphalt a perfectly fine driveway or to take out a reverse mortgage on the paid off family home or to send their mom to an assisted living facility when a closer look at the family’s finances would have left them screaming, “No, no, no!”

But there is no Thomas to save them from themselves. The best the family can do now is to remember him gently.

And Ms. Plunkett’s Mary, Thomas’s wife and the matriarch-to-be, does just that, summoning forth the ghost of his past deeds or sayings on numerous occasions. We can feel her emptiness as well as her need for connection.

Roberta Maxwell and Amy Warren in Women of a Certain Age. Photo by Joan Marcus.

And her developing relationship with Ms. Gibson’s Karin, the ex-wife, adds a much needed dynamism to the overall scene. We watch with care as outsider Karin moves into the family’s home and heart.

The same kind of dynamism might have been developed more fully in the relations between Joyce and her mother, Patricia. What begins as a cold, standoffish mother-daughter dynamic warmed as the play progressed, but the cause of that warming never became clear.

Mr. Sanders’ George and his wife, Ms. Hawley’s Hanna, are too gentle for the bullish world of tough negotiations. Though charged with carrying on the Gabriel’s family name (they have a college age son), they are emblematic of a family in decline: the world is changing too fast for them and the deal-makers are every where.

Thomas and his celebrity status within the family has hidden the widening gulf between the successful and the not so much.

The production team, led by Scenic Designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, with costumes also by Hilferty and lights by Jennifer Tipton, concentrated on the implements of the family kitchen placed in the Lab’s thrust arrangement. Above that simple setting, an array of microphones hung like hummingbirds hovering just above earshot. Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens were the Sound Designers orchestrating this phonetic chorus.

In the end, Nelson’s The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family presents its eulogy to a listening audience. We can do nothing to save them, and they can do nothing to save themselves.

The best we can do is witness their beautiful, loving demise.

Running Time: each play: one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.

The Gabriels plays through January 22, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Lab Theater – 2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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