Told in real time from five to seven PM on Election Day, November 8, 2016, not much happens in the play but as the Gabriel women talk, they reveal their hopes, their fears, their desires and their memories. By the end of the play, we know everything there is to know about them. Under Nelson’s direction, his cast of six who now have played these people in three plays since February 27 (first Hungry and then What Did You Expect? which began previews on Sept. 19) are not so much acting these characters as living them.
As hinted at in What Did You Expect?, the Gabriels of Rhinebeck, NY, have lost matriarch Patricia’s house on a reverse mortgage, the residence where her widowed daughter-in-law Mary and her late son Thomas’ first wife Karin have lately been living, while she has been in a pricy assisted living. As a result, along with Patricia’s son George, his wife Hannah, and her daughter Joyce, they have been going through closets and the attic to empty the house. Having found the 1957 Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, they have decided on this Election Day evening while they are all still together in the old house to make a meal entirely from recipes in the book. As we again watch them make dinner this last time together, they discuss the family situation and the state of things in Rhinebeck, a stand-in for America, circa 2016.
The Gabriels are members of the disenfranchised middle class that are representative of the have nots. Patricia has run through her money and can’t afford her expensive senior residence. When she finishes therapy for a recent stroke, she will be moving in with son George and his wife Hannah. As the catering business is currently slow, Hannah has had to take a job as a maid at the Rhinecliffe Inn. Mary, a retired doctor, who is short of cash, discovers that she has waited too long to renew her license and it will be easier to get certified as a substitute teacher than take the medical exams all over again. Karin who has been teaching at a nearby college is moving out from the rooms over the garage in three days and taken her own apartment before the house is sold. The real estate agents are circling like vultures and the wealthy buyer will most likely tear the house down and build something newer and bigger.
As the family has all voted earlier in the day except for the octogenarian Patricia, there is little talk of the election as it is too early to hear the results. However, it is continually referred to tangentially. Karen, an actress, will be performing a one-woman show from the writings of Hillary Clinton at the theater society when the polls close. As the Clintons live nearby, they may have been in the same line with them when they voted. There is talk of Eleanor Roosevelt, possibly the most admired First Lady: Joyce has just revisited her home Val Kill, and Patricia claims to have voted for her twice – even though she never ran for office. George and Hannah’s college age son Paulie voted that morning for the very first time and was disappointed that the experience was not more momentous.
The world they know is in flux. Joyce has been to an estate sale nearby and bought for 10 cents a 1910 issue of The Ladies Home Journal. Thinking of the glass ceiling that Clinton may break, Joyce reads from an article, “An open letter to the American girl,” on how things had changed for women back at the turn of the century. Listening to the article, Patricia declares that it describes her old-fashioned, self-effacing mother to a tee. Hannah has George, a master carpenter, reveal a trick he played on one of his arrogant and too rich customers: he has written on the underside of a desk a warning that it is not “grandiose economic achievement” that should be admired, but “the brotherhood of man.” Whichever way the election goes, things will never be the same again.
Having played these characters three times now, the cast appears to inhabit their roles and it will be difficult to imagine them in anything else. Although Maxwell’s Patricia doesn’t say much due to both her stroke and her approaching dementia, her presence is felt throughout. Her memory is failing but she still has flashes of insights and at times has total recall of various events from the past. Maryann Plunkett’s Mary is still suffering from the loss of her husband one year ago and seems to be about to lose her composure at various time as she contemplates the move she must make.
Meg Gibson as Thomas’ first wife still feels like an outsider even though she has been living with Mary for many months and has been accepted back in the fold since March 6, the day Thomas’ ashes were released into the Hudson in the first play. As married couple George and Hannah, Jay O. Sanders and Lynn Hawley seemed resigned to their fate and exhibit a kind of peace and equanimity. Only Amy Warren’s Joyce, the costume designer, still seems like an enigma, but she seems to be trying to tell her mother something when she speaks of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life with her women friends at Val Kill.
The realistic kitchen set by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West with its working stove, refrigerator and sink remains the same, with the audience seated on three sides of the playing area in the LuEsther Hall. Jennifer Tipton’s subtle lighting creates a warm cozy mood. Hilferty’s costumes for the six Gabriels are pitch perfect, with some comedy with Karin’s new dress for a first date with a real estate agent on this very evening. The sound design by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens remains at a low, conversational level to which we have grown accustomed in all three plays, while the sound effects such as the telephone ringing periodically are an integral part of the story line.
At this vantage after witnessing all three plays in Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family cycle, it is obvious that these occasional plays on how we live now are a remarkable achievement. You will hear them described as Chekhovian (after all, like in The Cherry Orchard the house is destined to be torn down very soon). However, the plays are really more Shavian, like his Heartbreak House, Misalliance or Getting Married, in which the excellent talk is a variation on a theme. Women of a Certain Age is a challenging play as you are required to listen intently to catch the drift and flow of the seemingly casual and off-hand conversation. On another level, this is a ghost play with unseen characters from the past and present hovering over the action. I, for one, will miss meeting up periodically with the Gabriels and seeing how their lives turn out.
Marathon performancs of all three shows, Hungry, What Did You Expect? and Women of A Certain Age, will run in repertory on Saturday, December 10; Sunday, December 11; Wednesday, December 14; Saturday, December 17; and Sunday, December 18. It is possible to see all three plays in chronological order on the same day.
Women of a Certain Age, Play 3 of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family (through December 4, 2016)
The Public Theater
LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission