9/08/2016

New Rep's "Regular Singing": Last Gathering of the Apple Corps

Paul Melendy, Laura Latreille, Joel Colodner, Karen MacDonald, Sarah Newhouse
& Bill Mootos
 in "Regular Singing"

Playwright Richard Nelson took on the daunting task in 2010 of creating a quartet of plays about a single family confronting national events as they impact one another. The cycle began on the eve of the midterm elections that year, with That Hopey Changey Thing, continuing in 2011 on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in Sweet and Sad, and again on election day 2012 in Sorry. This fourth and final installment, Regular Singing, takes the family to 2013 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. On the surface, it's a linear relating of the middle class liberal Apple Family in Rhinebeck, New York (where the playwright has lived since the eighties). The author obviously has more expansive intentions, as he has referred to the family as “worried liberals of a certain generation...(what they) would be talking about at a particular point in time...through simple human talk”. This final play in the cycle is now being presented by New Rep Theatre, in association with Stoneham Theatre (which has been involved with local productions of the other plays). It fits in nicely with New Rep's seasonal theme of “What's Past Is Prologue”, as it alludes to a history of American manners and private life. Nelson has also stated: “I hope these plays are about the need to talk, the need to listen, the need for theater, the need to be in the same room together and the need to know, in small and even in some bigger ways, that we are not alone”. Thus each of the Apple Family Plays occurs around a meal. There is continuity afoot, as this production is helmed by Stoneham Theatre's Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes, with, remarkably, the exact same cast and design team for all four locally presented plays; even the sets and props have “traveled between stages”. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that the cast is still intact, but more about that later.

As subtitled Scenes from Life in the Country, the works have been compared to Checkov's Uncle Vanya, and, in this final piece there's also an allusion to The Cherry Orchard. The influence of Chekhov can easily be seen in its cast of characters and their reactions to their very ordinary lives. The action of this work (and the three former plays as well) takes place in the home of the eldest sibling of four, Barbara (Karen MacDonald), a high school English teacher, responsible for Uncle Benjamin (Joel Colodner), a retired actor now suffering from memory loss after a heart attack and coma, and living in an assisted living facility an hour from Rhinebeck. Richard (Bill Mootos), a lawyer in the Governor's office in Albany, pays his first visit home in some time, to share the impending death of the (unseen upstairs) Adam, ex-husband of Marian, (Sarah Newhouse), a grammar school teacher. The remaining couple consists of the youngest sibling Jane (Laura Latreille), an aspiring writer, and Tim Andrews (Paul Melendy), an actor recently transplanted from New York City. They share what JFK's death means to one another, as well as their relationships with Adam, and his terminal lung disease brought on, in a former play, by his taking up smoking again after the suicide of his twenty-two-year-old daughter Evan. As the title implies, there is a healthy dose of singing of psalms in preparation for their tribute to Adam, at his request, upon his death.

There is a great deal of “normal” conversation, which is a problem in the first third of the play as the everyday dialogue takes a while to morph into more universal issues. There are some later sections that are more telling, with language such as “somewhere halfway in between”,speech acts”, “sometimes better not to know” and “every writer is Scheherazade, telling stories to keep from dying”. This cast of six manages to bridge the gap between the mundane to the more profound fairly seamlessly, and their comfort with one another is self-evident. This family tree, at an intermission-less two hours, could use some pruning, but there's no denying its relevance, though Nelson has stated he initially expected the play cycle to be disposable. Unfortunately, this has proven to be partially true already, as real life events come so quickly and unceasingly that some of the dialogue is already dated. A good deal, however, remains pertinent enough for us to engage with this insular tribe, especially as this tightly knit ensemble gathers for the last time on the stage. Their connection, in the play as well as undoubtedly offstage, gives this production an honesty and credibility that's a rare theatrical treat.

The hardy Scenic Design by Crystal Tiala, timely Costume Design by Gail Buckley, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, and Sound Design by David Wilson are all fine, though the ending of this production needs a slight technical tweaking (an easy fix). The penultimate line, delivered by Tom, is, “That's it, that's the end”, followed by a swift increase of light as Barbara and then the others face the audience. The effect was to confuse members of the audience who thought the play was over and started to applaud, partially drowning out the real ending of the work.

This was a shame, for the actual final words, belong to Barbara and must be heard: “And so we live. Sometimes we come together. Something brings us together. And some days we are alone. But it's those days together, that remind us, why we live. Or maybe it is - how. How – we live...”

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