In “Regular Singing,” the fourth, final and most emotional play in Richard Nelson’s pioneering Apple Family series, a character says that the assassination of JFK was one of the few times in his lifetime that he felt “our whole country was connected.”
“Regular Singing” takes place – and opened — on the day of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and in this it followed the formula of the first three plays in the series, presented over the past three years as an epic experiment in making theater a place where people feel connected.
In each, the playwright offers a look at the Apple family “in real time” – the plays debuting on the very days in which they are set:
“That Hopey Changey Thing” is set on November 10, 2010, the night of the midterm elections.
“Sweet and Sad” is set on the tenth anniversary of September 11th.
Sorry is set on November 6, 2012, the morning of the U.S Presidential election.
All four plays, which balance character study with political discussion of pressing issues, are currently playing in repertory at the Public with the same extraordinary cast: brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders); sisters Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Marian (Laila Robins), and Jane (Sally Murphy); their failing uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries); and Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken). All are the performers who originated the roles with two exceptions: Murphy and Kunken replace J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley, committed elsewhere.
In “Regular Singing,” once again, there is little here that wouldn’t be happening on an ordinary day in any ordinary family – though, unlike the previous plays, each character in turn seems to have a moment when he or she breaks down and cries, overcome by sadness. The Apples have a meal and talk. There is some political commentary – Richard in particular talks about President Obama, and about his new boss, Governor Cuomo – but it is presented the way it would be in a family, in-between the bickering, the family anecdotes, the pass-the-salt chatting. There are some sly allusions here, to Chekhov and Jane Austin’s letters, to underscore what Nelson is attempting with his play: Jane happens to bring up Jane Austin’s letters, saying about them “Beautiful thoughts about very trivial things,” a record of what it was like back then from day to day. “What will be left for others to know about our everyday life?”
Eventually the talk turns to JFK and the assassination, and returns later. The total time spent on the subject is roughly the proportion that an average family might spend discussing it in real life – no more than 20 minutes in a play that lasts almost two and a half hours.
Barbara, a schoolteacher in Rhinebeck, N.Y., tells her family how she asked her students to tell her what the anniversary meant to them. Most said it meant nothing. One said it was a “mythological time, when heroes died.”
Barbara has her uncle Benjamin, a retired actor, read an article about the day of the assassination, as she had him do earlier in the day to her classroom. He does so, including the typos. Even the proofreaders were weeping that day, Barbara says.
This is not the main reason why there is a pall on the home where two of the three Apple sisters live. Marian is taking care of her ex-husband Adam, who is dying in a room above where the action takes place. (He is unseen, only spoken of.) His doctors expected him to die before today, but he said he wanted to live at least until the 50th anniversary. Adam is the character who talks about how the country was connected in the aftermath of the assassination, perhaps the only time in his lifetime.
What helped connect them, of course, was television. It is hard to think of any theater that did so, although theater certainly played a role in the aftermath of September 11th.
Can it do so now? Do Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays connect us in ways that ordinary plays do not? Do they bring us together as a community on a landmark day, or are they more attention-grabbing devices? Are they anthropological snapshots or enduring works of theater – Instagram meant for the moment or artistic portraits meant for the ages?
I’m not prepared to judge this yet. The play seemed slow-going, something that could have been cut in half without losing any of its power or coherence. But the experience also felt special, and Nelson’s experiment — in line with other recent efforts to present series theater akin to the best of series television — has allowed us to become invested in this one family, without any need (as on TV) for comas and car crashes and periodic murders, nor a constant stream of numbing one-liners. I was amused, but also weirdly moved and even thrilled to witness the dynamic between Richard and his sister Barbara – how she “guilts” him into prolonging his visit this evening, and accuses him of being aloof from the rest of the family; how the other sisters predict that this will happen; how he mildly protests, resists and succumbs.
At the very end of the Regular Singing, Barbara turns to the audience and addresses us directly:
“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.”
If it’s not clear who is supposed to be speaking – is it the character, or the actress, or the playwright? – it is good to feel one with that “we.”
At The Public Theater
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Scenic and costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, sound design by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens.
Cast: Maryann Plunkett (Barbara), Jay O. Sanders (Richard), Laila Robins (Marian), Jon
Devries (Benjamin), Stephen Kunken (Tim), and Sally Murphy (Jane).
Running time: Close to 2 1/2 hours with no intermission.
Regular Singing is scheduled to run in repertory with the three other Apple Family Plays through December 15th.