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The Apple Family Plays

That Hopey Changey Thing, one of Richard Nelson's series of Apple Family Plays, staged at the Brighton Festival. Photo: Joan Marcus That Hopey Changey Thing, one of Richard Nelson's series of Apple Family Plays, staged at the Brighton Festival. Photo: Joan Marcus

Richard Nelson’s quartet of plays (That Hopey Changey Thing/Sweet and Sad/Sorry/Regular Singing) spanning four years in the life of one American family is an extraordinary thing to experience. Over the opening weekend of the Brighton Festival it’s possible to watch them as separate instalments or as part of day-long marathon. Viewed together in this way, they exert a powerful hold – you come to feel as if you’re living with this family, sharing its hopes and pain.

The Apple family consists of a group of middle-aged siblings – three sisters and a brother – living in Rhinebeck, a village in upstate New York. They are educated, articulate, liberal, and mostly fairly agreeable people. While there is conflict here, family politics, regrets and accusations, they are for the most part loving and supportive of one another. Nelson’s gift is in how he makes compelling drama from these people simply sitting around the dinner table, talking and thinking, occasionally singing.

The plays are set at pivotal dates over a four-year period, starting on the night of the mid-term elections in 2010, then coinciding with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, election day in 2012 and the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Each play begins with the laying of the table. The family sits down to eat together with all the little rituals which that entails.

The shadow of Chekhov hangs over proceedings. There is a lot of longing. The family home, the village and its history, also play a part in the atmosphere of the productions. Nelson slowly and subtly sculpts this family, the shifting relationships between the siblings, their hopes and wants and losses. He resists extremes of emotion. Tragic events occur but they are part of a larger canvas. There are deaths but not the deaths you expect. The family becomes a mirror for America – albeit a specific corner of America – under the Obama administration, but it is a family first and foremost.

There’s some fine playing here. The interplay between the actors is beautifully observed. Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy and Mariann Mayberry are all, in their particular ways, warm and strong as the Apple sisters. Jon DeVries gives a subtly sad yet incredibly well-pitched performance as their uncle, Benjamin, a great actor in his day, his mind eroded by amnesia. Jay O Sanders is gruff yet gentle as the only brother in their midst and Jesse Pennington grows in his role as the outsider, Jane’s new partner, Tim, also an actor, as he becomes a vital part of their family.

There’s so much in these plays, low-key as they are, so much richness and warmth and emotion. On their own they would be engaging, as a whole they are quite magnificent, a journey you go on with the characters – and with the actors. You feel as if you are eavesdropping. Like you have glimpsed something private and profound. And it’s a privileged position to be in.

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Verdict
An extraordinary cycle of plays exploring American family life
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