Stoneham and Gloucester Stage theaters have joined hands and combined forces to present the New England premiere of Richard Nelson’s four plays about the Apple Family, spanning three years. They’re sparing no expense, featuring an immensely talented, Boston, star-studded cast, who will progress together, throughout the series, culminating in Gloucester in summertime, 2016.
The first installation or play, “That Hopey Changey Thing,” is well directed by Stoneham Theatre Artistic Director Weylin Symes, and currently playing at Stoneham through March 15. The one-act play appears to be an introduction to its characters, the Apple family. It’s a glimpse at this typical, middle-class, educated group of middle-aged siblings and their elderly uncle, Benjamin.
The play is set during the 2010 mid-elections, centering around the dinner table of eldest, unmarried sibling, Barbara Apple, in her Rhinebeck, NY home.
The second play, “Sweet and Sad,” takes place on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the third, “Sorry,” takes place Election Day 2012; and the fourth and final play, “Regular Singing,” takes place on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Nelson calls his plays “disposable,” because, he says, they’re tied to specific, contemporary moments in time.
Although the acting is fantastic, the play ambles along, to a non-conclusion. Between brief musical interludes, the characters spend time setting the table for dinner, wait awhile for sister Marian Apple Platt to arrive, eat dinner, and engage in lively conversation, which later turns political. Somewhere in the midst of this family camaraderie, they hint at a family secret.
Barbara (well played by veteran award-winning Karen MacDonald) fusses and flutters about, preparing the table, clearing it, while caring for everyone and acting as referee between activist Democrat sister, Marian,(award-winning Sarah Newhouse) and recently-turned-Republican younger brother, Richard. Bill Mootos is engaging as Richard, especially when verbally sparring with Marian, but we learn little about him. He’s married, but intimates his marriage is in trouble. So’s his career. He lost his job.
Barbara, an unmarried high school teacher, has taken in her beloved elderly uncle, Benjamin, who’s recuperating from recent heart surgery, and was left with amnesia. Benjamin’s forgetfulness echo dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A former well-known actor, Benjamin has glimmers of memory, but repeatedly forgets his beloved dog Oliver died years ago. Veteran actor Joel Colodner’s acting is deeply touching, especially to theatergoers with beloved relatives stricken with dementia.
The family adores Benjamin. He has been like a father to them, and he brightens up, being around them. They prod his memory. They show him photographs, stroke his ego, treating him tenderly, affectionately. “You’re not my niece, you’re my angel,” Benjamin tells sister, Jane Apple Halls (a snappy Laura Latreille), who brought home a younger boyfriend, Tim Andrews, (impressive rising star Paul Melendy). He’s an aspiring actor, who’s eager to meet his idol, Uncle Benjamin. Undaunted by Benjamin’s amnesia, Tim successfully urges Benjamin to read some of his famous lines, delighting the family.
Like her siblings, Jane brings her own thing to the table. She’s writing a book on American etiquette. As the family reminisces, teases and jabs each other verbally, they bandy about names like Obama and Sarah Palin, while theatergoers wait for something to happen.
Echoing the play’s opening scene, with Barbara setting the table, the play ends with her cleaning up and shutting the light, leaving us in the dark.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of one-act play by Richard Nelson, first of his four plays about the Apple family, co-produced by Stoneham and Gloucester Stage theaters, appearing through March 15, at the 395 Main St., Stoneham theater. Showtimes:Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets, $45-$50; seniors, $40-$45; students with valid ID, $15. Call 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.