Heartily consumed, easily digested and readily recommended, The Apple Family Plays at Studio Theatre present an engrossing slice of family life populated by challenging, complex, ordinary people full of American pie appeal. These are folks that you know.
Playing in rotating repertory in the intimate 187-seat, Milton Theatre, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, canvass two tumultuous years in America history and explore the affecting story of the Democrat-politically raised, Apple family. The sophisticated realism of these two comedy-dramas, astutely directed by the Helen Hayes Award winner Serge Seiden (2013 Outstanding Director, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at MetroStage), and written by Tony Award-winning playwright, Richard Nelson (James Joyce’s The Dead, 2000), showcase a generous, feisty ensemble of DC’s finest acting talent.
“Why do we turn off our sense of right and wrong . . . just in order to win?” says Richard (Rick Foucheux) in a terse exchange with his sister Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti). “Since when has not being worse, become who we are?” Responding to rich, universal themes, intelligent story subtext, and the focus of idiosyncratic character motivation, the political landscape is examined and identities are defined. The societal overtones and dramatic Chekhovian undertones burn into the family’s personal conflicts as the Apples spar over personal grievances, exhaust cautious hope, and dissect the political aches and disappointments over politicians and broken promises.
More than a series of vignettes, the plays resonate with eye-opening relevancy and a remarkable immediacy in a powerfully irresistible way. Surprisingly, the challenges and concerns from both sides of the aisle are provoked, although the liberal point of view is the one shared by most.
The Studio Theatre and Director Serge Seiden should be commended for taking a risk in offering “theatre escape” for such a series of politically related plays in the nation’s Capital – a town keenly aware of the mystifying politics and engulfed in the very combustible, hot topic debates that share themes in both plays. Political plays about the current American moment don’t come more timely or personal than the prescient Apple Family Plays because they telegraph the challenges, questions, and soul stirring sentiments of the hearts and minds of U.S.citizens today. The audience itself is indeed a character in these plays.
The first two installments of Nelson’s conversational four play series begins with The Hopey Changey Thing. The “Hopey Changey” coined phrase in the play title, references the snarky rhetoric from a Sarah Palin quip during a speech at the Tea Party convention mocking President Barack Obama’s own words.
On the night of President Obama’s first midterm election in 2010, That Hopey Changey Thing unfolds over the course of a rare family gathering and a Buffett style dinner. Two hours north of New York City, in Rhinebeck, New York, the audience is introduced to the four Apple family siblings: Richard (Rick Foucheux), Barbara (Sarah Marshall), Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti) and Jane (Kimberly Schraf) along with her boyfriend Tim (Jeremy Webb) at careworn, Barbara “She’s a saint” Apple’s house that she shares with their aging, amnesiac, uncle Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen.)
The moving, dynamic interactions and the fresh, riveting performances shared by this topnotch ensemble do not come any better. The listening skills by these actors are extraordinary. The playwright has written in such a naturalistic way that there are many cutoffs and interruptions, so the acting cues are very tight. The meticulous acting by this cast of six is relaxed, confident, and true. There is not a single weak effort coming off the stage. Ted van Griethuysen (Uncle Benjamin) is a three-time Helen Hayes Award winner, and dare I say this performance is as good as he’s ever been. The ease and eloquence he has with the humanity of his character made the hair on my arms stand. The absorbing scene where he talks about the freedom of acting “when you are doing something without judgement or inhabitation,” and when he delivers “great acting is simply willed amnesia,” it feels like a personal testimonial on aesthetic realism. The honesty of van Griethuysen as Uncle Benjamin is devastatingly real.
Also entertaining is the dry humor, and how the heightened sensitivity and balance of the performances ping-pong back and forth from one engaging monologue to the next phenomenal exchange. Sarah Marshall is a comic timing genius! Her witty play with words and vocal delivery are masterful.
The Apples reminisce about family nostalgia and lost childhood memories, probe etiquette and the meaning of social manners, and tension flair as they dissect the volatile, ever-changing state of American politics. It’s always been said that if you want to avoid conflict in a conversation, then don’t talk about religion or politics. A touchstone of the family tension centers on Marian accusing Richard of becoming a Republican because he’s taking a new job with a corporate law firm.
What have we become? That is one of the central questions That Hopey Feeling Thing asks.
What is so fascinating about Nelson’s intriguing tale is that it is easier for the characters to discuss politics and the state of the union than the delicacies of the individual Apple family personal dramas. Politics doesn’t define them entirely, but it is revelatory to discover the how the political thinking of the characters and the evocative mood of introspection and frustration evolve. “Sometimes it all seems so hopeless,” says Marian, as she fights back tears of exasperation.
And then there are the family secrets . . .
The dining room furniture set is a simple one designed by Debra Booth, but the authenticity of the play is emphasized by a fully realized kitchen area located behind an upstage doorway. The sound and lighting design are practical and in sync, perfectly in alignment with the reality of the play. Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting was unnoticeably, restrained and unobtrusive. A mere blink of the lighting, and a single piano chord strike, signal the end of each vignette. Erik Trester’s complementary sound design and the naturalism of everyday sound gave life to the open space. Both production elements are subtle while being distinct, and Helen Huang’s costume stylings looked as genuine as if the characters had pulled the clothing from their own closets.
While the symbolism of naming the family “the Apples”and the correlation to Americana wholesomeness has not been lost, the loving kinship demonstrated by the Apple brother, sisters, and Uncle Benjamin is refreshing to witness. I believe we all know too well how bitterly divisive and ostracizing strong, differing opinions can be, and how acrimonious internal family conflict can become when dealing with siblings at family gatherings. But there is a slow acceptance to one’s individuality, and a maturity to the discussion – although disagreeable – that is encouraging in this play, and perhaps that is the one of the takeaways.
The anguish, political differences, and outbursts of anger and frustration in That Hopey Changey Thing reflect the cry out loud, societal plea for common sense reasoning and genuine hope for a better tomorrow.
No specific dramatic conclusions “happen” from That Hopey Changey Thing, but that’s the point and the reality of everyday life, really. Isn’t it? Every day is not a highly dramatic moment. From one day to the next, it is the build up of those everyday events, hopes and dreams that make us who we are and eventually reflect the changes, differences, and ultimate dramatic substance of our lives. We all want our piece of the pie. And, the Apple family is no different. They are reflective of the conversations, personalities, and shared experiences of this nation.We all want to win, but what are we winning?
This perplexed family portrait presented by the Studio Theatre via The Apple Family Plays: That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, demonstrate the understanding of the larger social and political context, and the psychological detailed attention to how individuals define their slice of the pie – inspiration of hope and change for us all.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
The Apple Family Plays: That Hopey Changey Thing plays through December 29, 2013 at The Studio Theatre in the Milton Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.
‘The Apple Family Plays: Sweet and Sad’ at The Studio Theatre by Jessica Vaughan.