What Did You Expect? The Gabriels: Pre Election Realness
The play begins in a way that changes a sterile cooking space into a homey warm kitchen; the heart of a home, where a few women are preparing a meal. My assumption is dinner. And then, poetically, one of these women starts reading from a play, that sounds so beautiful and captivating, that we are at once pulled in. The play being read centers on a pair of men watching a family through the windows of their home. They have come bearing bad news, but they pause and watch this family live their lives with no knowledge of what has happened. Are we, basically, those characters watching the Gabriels live their lives, but in Richard Nelson’s What Did You Expect? Play 2 of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, we are able to not only watch, but hear this family from the inside. And even if this family appears to be filled with hope and love, we also hear and feel their sadness, their loss, and their anxiety of the future.
These actors, all working seamlessly together, are giving us the purest and most straight forward depiction of a family that I have seen in a long time. Many are comparing this to the The Apple Family multi-play series that also graced the Public (2010-13), but unfortunately I am not one of those who was blessed to see it. But if it is as deep and honest as this authentic family, then I am truly as heartbroken as one can be. Much like, Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), the retired doctor/sister-in-law/widow who feels like the emotional center of this timely drama. She is strong, thoughtful, controlled, all while mourning the loss of her husband, Thomas, the playwright who wrote that stunning opener play. Thomas fills the space around this family, filling it with loss and his humor, bringing waves of pain and sadness to the generally stoic Mary. Surrounding her that afternoon, are her dead husband’s mother, sister, brother, his wife, and oddly enough, an actress tenant who was once married to the deceased. In that comfortable kitchen, perfectly designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, with lighting by Jennifer Tipton and sound by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens, they all chop, dice, and talk, while sorting through boxes of Thomas’s old journals and books hoping to find something of value, in all aspects of that word.
On their table of topics besides food, are all the things we ourselves are discussing before we entered their home. We are the flies on the wall to discussions that are instantly relatable. Topics about death, money, family, work, money, caregiving, marriage, money, and most current of all topics; politics and the election that is only a month away. Nelson has written and directed a piece that takes place on the exact same date as the opening of this play here at the Public. Written quickly to encompass the time, details, and emotionality of our current condition, it ripples through us in its anxiety and discomfort. This family is struggling to survive in their ancestral home in the now affluent summer home town of Rhinebeck, NY. Surrounded by vacationing Manhattan wealth, this family has gathered together to discuss how they will deal with their predicament, mainly the matriarch’s poor financial decision making regarding her life and their home.
It’s an intense and lovely piece of story telling, meandering at moments, but engaging over all. The cast (Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, M. Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Amy Warren) are pros throughout, and their difficulties are easily felt by us all. What Nelson is doing with this family and this three part Election Year saga is impressive. To be given the gift to be those earlier fictional characters standing outside a home looking in, getting a chance to peek in on a family just preparing their meal and trying to figure out what the future may hold, with all the insecurities, anxieties layered and real, with a full slice of optimism and hope on top, well, is an honor. One that I feel blessed to experience, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.