The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, a trilogy of plays by Richard Nelson presented in real time at the Public Theater, ends the way it began eight months ago – with the Gabriel family talking little about the election and nothing about Donald Trump. This time around, the omission is exasperating.
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The third play, Women of a Certain Age, opened and takes place during Election Day, 2016, with the playwright reportedly writing updates to the script right up to the afternoon of the opening, presumably to make it more timely and thus more authentic. As in the first two plays in the trilogy — Hungry, set in March and What Did You Expect? in September – six people related in some way to Thomas Gabriel, who died a year ago,sit down at the kitchen table in their home in Rhinebeck, New York, to prepare and consume a meal.
The third play lasts about 100 minutes, and is taking place between 5 and 7 p.m (with blackouts to account for the skipped-over minutes.)
This is before election results, but other than a passing reference to voting, there is no mention of either candidate until halfway through the play, when Karin, Thomas’s first wife and a former actress, talks about her plan to perform as Hillary Clinton that night at a barn run by the local theatre society. This gives the excuse to then quote from Clinton’s idealistic Commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1969.
“I voted today for that Hillary,” Joyce, Thomas’s sister, says.
As with the previous plays, the name “Trump” is uttered only once, in passing. In retrospect, the choice to sideline Donald Trump from the script was, at the very least, a misreading of the election.
In a note in the program, Nelson in effect defends his decision to minimize the election, pointing out somewhat legalistically that the subtitle says the “election year,” not the election:
“…these plays follow not just an election, but a year in the lives of these characters; a year which reveals their hopes and losses, their fears and resiliency, and how these entwine with a political season few of us ever imagined.”
But wouldn’t the hopes and fears of the Gabriels, an otherwise typical educated middle class family, be in part about the election? Wouldn’t they, on Election Day, at least talk about the election, and both candidates – and about their plans to watch the election results?
There is really only one brief exchange:
“I just want it to be over,” says Hannah Thomas’s sister-in-law.
“She’s going to win, Hannah,” says Mary, Thomas’s widow. “Because the other is unthinkable.”
Most of the time, while I myself sat in the audience with great anxiety about the election results, I listened with impatience to this supposedly socially engaged family discuss how no one eats Jello anymore, and how people used to drape the mirrors when somebody died, and how Alexander the Great gave his mistress to the painter who did her portrait since he clearly understood her better than he did….and I left feeling that the promise and process in which the plays were put together wound up at best a gimmick to market them.
This is unfortunate because, if it weren’t taking place (and being written) on Election Day, I could better appreciate Women of a Certain Age as a well-acted, gentle and insightful look at a family facing many struggles, emotionally and financially. Patricia, Thomas’s mother, has had a stroke, but the Gabriels cannot afford to keep her in the nursing home. They are being forced to sell the house. Hannah is secretly working as a hotel maid to help make ends meet. They are still in their own ways mourning Thomas’s death a year earlier.
It is also, more subtly, about a generation of women – five of the six characters are women ranging in age from their 50’s to their 80’s – and how their lives have changed …and how they haven’t. There is something unintentionally poignant in the Gabriels being forever frozen at a moment when they nervously anticipate the election of the first woman President of the United States.
Women of a Certain Age is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, New York, New York 10003) through December 4, 2016.
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family
Play Three: Women of a Certain Age.
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson, featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren, Scenic Designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, Costume Designer Susan Hilferty, Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton, Sound Designers Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens, Production Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.