Everyday Epic, the theme for the 2017 Brighton Festival, fits Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogy like a glove. The three plays – Hungry, What Did You Expect? and Women of a Certain Age – zoom in to zoom out, microscopically examining the life of one small-town American family. Simultaneously, they unmask the fractured face of contemporary America with breath-taking articulacy.
Echoing Nelson’s Apple Family quartet, which played at the 2015 Festival, this three-part story follows residents of Rhinebeck, NY, on three evenings in 2016, at three key moments in the US Presidential campaigns: March 4th (a few days after Super Tuesday), September 16th (when the campaigns were reaching their apotheosis), and November 8th (the day Donald took the White House).
In each, real-time play, the Gabriel family – an odd bunch of siblings, in-laws and ex-wives – sit around their kitchen table and chat as they prepare a meal. They chat about their childhoods, about their careers, about their town, slowly evoking rural, upstate New York life in captivating three-dimensional detail.
But there’s no twee sentimentality to Nelson’s dialogue, no rose-tinted nostalgia. He writes real, thoroughly decent people; fully formed characters with flaws and foibles and fears. By the end of the third play, after five-and-a-half hours of supremely understated drama, Nelson’s characters don’t feel like friends, they feel like family.
Nelson’s clockwork theatre ventures beyond naturalism, into uber-naturalism. He out-Chekhovs Checkhov, and his six-strong cast – he directs as well – are flawless. It seems wrong to single anyone out in such a universally polished ensemble, but Maryann Plunkett’s Mary – anxiously grieving the death of her husband, whose absence casts a long shadow over all three plays – and Jay O. Sanders’ George – Mary’s gruff brother-in-law – are both gently devastating.
There’s politics here too, but of a subtler, slower kind. One gradually senses great wheels turning beneath the Gabriels’ feet. Social upheavals, political revolutions and yawning economic disparities mundanely puncture their conversations like persistent nuisance callers, as discussions about unaffordable care homes and as anecdotes about condescending Manhattan financiers weekending in the country. And in this restraint, in this downbeat refinement, Nelson finds a thrilling power.
He wrote these plays prior to Trump’s election – the third actually premiered at New York’s Public Theater on November 8th – and they have only grown in resonance since then. The trilogy encapsulates a country from the kitchen table. It’s everyday. It’s epic. And it’s a quietly stunning theatrical achievement.