A shining ensemble carries the second offering in Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays: Sweet and Sad. For this piece in the series, the world event bringing the Apple clan together is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The play was written not long after and indeed, the whole cycle has just finished with Family Singing premiering in New York this past Friday.
The Studio Theatre, the DC go-to spot for this kind of contemporary, innovative work, is doing the first two plays in repertory and the cast is back for another dinner a year later. I did not see That Hopey Changey Thing, which worked just fine. The plays are not necessarily sequels to one another, but I imagine the tone of this work is much more poignant. Tragedy has struck the Apple family, even as they remember the larger national tragedy, though there are still plenty of moments for laughter particularly in this ensemble of veteran DC stage actors with multiple Helen Hayes Awards and nominations between them.
Ted van Griethuysen (Benjamin) is both hilarious and dignified in his worsening memory. With a look, he can summon belly laughs from the audience. Sarah Marshall (Barbara) is the glue holding the family together and gives an understated performance in this family of characters. Kimberly Schraf (Jane) is great at the summoning history. With every line, she can evoke the decades behind these relationships. Elizabeth Pierotti (Marian) is simply wonderful in a challenging role as a woman barely holding on. Rick Foucheux (Richard) lives his character completely – embodying both the sophisticated lawyer and a defensive brother. Jeremy Webb (Tim) thrives as the odd man out, the only non-family member present. His repeated, “No, no, it’s fine,” perfectly captures the feeling of dinner with potential in-laws.
As an ensemble they make up something more than their individual performances, partly I think because these plays are in repertory. The sense of history and background is palpable and makes the silent glances between siblings as meaningful as the scripted lines. Costume Designer Helen Huang contributes with subtle accents that enhance each character like Uncle Benjamin’s fabulous bathrobe and Marian’s sweater which she uses almost as a shield.
Playwright Richard Nelson has an award-soaked and international career as perhaps the American playwright of this decade, and this script is a treasure trove of American culture and family, though his hand as playwright is sometimes a little heavy as the characters discuss the theater and politics with more of a mind to make a point than tell a story, but the intimate family moments are pitch perfect.
Director Serge Seiden has created clever tableaus of the actors and shepherds them through an entire meal over the course of the play. It never feels stale or repetitive in its simplicity. That simplicity of form is carried through the set design by Debra Booth with an elaborate kitchen offstage, visible only through a door to a simple room with one table and lit in soft yellows by Lighting Designer Daniel Maclean Wagner.
This play feels particularly relevant this time of year as we all face our own family dinners. It’s a pretty good way to spend an evening, reminiscing with the Apple family, and Sweet and Sad offers exactly that – a poignant, moving glimpse of life as we live it now, with a cast of accomplished DC thespians who moved me to tears.
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
The Apple Family Plays: Sweet and Sad plays through December 29, 2013 at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.
‘The Apple Family Plays: That Hopey Changey Thing’ at The Studio Theatre by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.