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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jay O. Sanders, Laila Robins, J. Smith-Cameron, and Maryann Plunkett.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

At Tuesday's opening-night performance of Sorry, Richard Nelson's new play at The Public Theater, you could feel a palpable chill pass through the Anspacher Theater late in the evening. The line that ushered in this harsh breeze, at once expectant and terrifying and innocent, could not be more simple. Yet in that particular moment, it was loaded with complexities that, sad to say, audiences in the future—and I don't mean years from now, I mean as early as Wednesday—will not experience in quite the same way. The words: "They're saying another storm's coming tomorrow."

We today know that this refers to the forecasted Nor'easter, which is slated to bring frigid wind and rain to a region still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and appreciate it on the level of an inconvenience that could swell to something more arriving on the heels of a tragedy. For Nelson's characters, it symbolizes as well an uncertain new existence that will have ramifications no one can quite predict. Most tantalizing yet, those of us in Tuesday's audiences were united with those characters by a third level of significance to that statement: what happens to the United States once either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney has won the presidential election.

Sorry is, of course, the third play in Nelson's ongoing saga of the Apple family. Set on the morning of election day 2012, it follows on the heels of That Hopey Changey Thing (occurring against the 2010 midterm election) and Sweet and Sad (the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks) in examining how the inner and outer worlds of this group congregating in Rhinebeck, New York, collide and hopefully show how the bonds of kin and country are more substantial and more meaningful than most of us might believe. And for Nelson, who has also directed with a captivating sensitivity, this is the most successful attempt yet at perfecting the human half of the formula.

This time around, the Apples are dealing with an especially profound personal event. Elderly Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries) has never fully recovered from his heart attack of two years ago and the dementia it brought on, and has become in recent months an unusual and unsettling burden on his primary caretaker, his niece Barbara (Maryann Plunkett). Marian and Jane (Laila Robins and J. Smith-Cameron), Barbara's sisters, have decided that Benjamin's behavior has become so erratic that he must be professionally cared for, and today—the same day that the women's brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders) returns from a lengthy trip to London—will be Benjamin's first in a new assisted living facility.

For about two hours, starting at 5:00 AM, the Apples angst about what this means and what its impact will be, and in doing so face up to their own decisions with regards to how they've lived, parented (or been parented), and, yes, voted. Discussions about the pain of doing the "right thing," the remorse inherent in making any tough choice, and the questionable aftermath naturally evolve into doubts about Obama's first term and whether he deserves a second—and whether his promises to America amount to nothing more than the same kind of empty ones the members of this ordinary family have so often made to each other.

Maryann Plunkett with Jon DeVries.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nelson has not effortlessly woven political concerns into this piece. Aside from an early reference to Kristen Gillibrand and a scene-length confab later about what each person would say if given one minute with the president, the campaign and its impending climax register as shadowy backdrops that are less about providing larger context for these struggles than in imbuing the play with immediacy. And I'm not entirely convinced that the misgivings expressed during these scenes flow as naturally as they have in the past. (Some of Marian's more critical lines, for instance, ring a bit too strongly with the voice of the more historically skeptical Richard.)

But if That Hopey Changey Thing remains the series' finest example to date of linking the broader and the narrower issues within a single dramatic framework, Sorry is by far the most emotionally powerful. The linchpin issue of Benjamin's fate inspires intensely affecting outpourings of guilt and grief that strike at the heart of who these people are and what they want. Everyone is on edge and unsure of what's happening next, so the tiniest sparks set off enormous blazes. Anyone who's had to endure similar situations with their own siblings will shudder with recognition at the way Barbara, Marian, Jane, and Richard must constantly work to not turn on each other (and, occasionally, mend wounds when they find they must).

That also makes this the most astonishing showcase yet for these excellent actors, who have also appeared in both the preceding plays. (A sixth, Shuler Hensley, who played Jane's boyfriend Tim, does not appear in this installment.) DeVries is marvelous in depicting the unstable Benjamin's fight against both his deteriorating mind and his nieces' oppressive best intentions; you really do sense a man wasting away before your eyes. Smith-Cameron's cool sophistication stands in spunky contrast to Robins's controlled exasperation and Sanders's well-oiled good-naturedness, all of which are recognizable as being crafted from decades of these brothers and sisters interacting with each other. Yet the underlying love the actors also display explains how these disparate, opinionated people have managed to survive with each other for so long.

Plunkett, however, is in a class by herself here. She projects Barbara's overwhelming attitude of dedication, while never completely covering up her inability to make her difficult circumstances work. As new events reveal shocking new facets of Barbara's relationship with Benjamin, she becomes more activated and yet more trapped within the life she's created for herself—and Plunkett is superb at showing her try to claw her way out without doing any damage to the people or the walls around her. The frustration throbs and sears, but she presses on, and Plunkett makes sure we see each of the million ways that takes a toll on this selfless woman who's had to suffer in ways no one else understands.

It's Barbara, by the way, who utters that line about the storm—and that's no small part of the reason it cuts the way it does. She knows that she, her sisters, and her brother, are at a dangerous threshold—and, once crossed, there's no going back. But the awareness of what may come doesn't stop anyone from having to face it—tomorrow will arrive whether they want it to or not. Sorry is ultimately about how the Apples steel themselves for it, and the example they set is strong enough to help you reinforce your own being, whether you're afraid of another natural disaster or one brought about by the quadrennial whims of the American electorate.

Through November 18
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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