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Women of a Certain Age

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 8, 2016

Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley,
and Meg Gibson
Photo by Joan Marcus

Women of a Certain Age, the third and final play in Richard Nelson's series "The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family," is set amid three blighted wastelands. The first is the house of Thomas Gabriel in Rhinebeck, New York, which is slowly being dismantled from the inside out. The second is the network of souls of the Gabriels themselves, so eroded by the events of the last year that they are barely capable of providing the foundation for a calm, adult life. The third, naturally, is America itself.

At this point, it's probably critical to mention that Women of a Certain Age takes place from about 5:00 to 7:00 PM on Tuesday, November 8, 2016—just before the results of the presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had been decided. The Gabriels, at least as we have come to know them over the course of the two preceding plays (Hungry, which opened and was set in early March, and What Did You Expect?, from mid September) do not yet have any way of knowing for sure what will happen once the votes are counted. Yet you sense while watching the play that they sort of do, even if they don't want to admit it.

All they can know for certain is that their lives are in shambles. On this, the one-year anniversary of Thomas's death, his widow, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), is coping with the loss of her medical license and facing the reality she'll never be a practicing doctor again. She's been spearheading the project of cleaning out Thomas's house in advance of selling it, something that's become necessary as Thomas's mother, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), has made increasingly poor choices and required constant care at an assisted-living facility; a stroke has also robbed Patricia of the use of an arm and a leg, so she requires help even getting into and out of a wheelchair. Thomas's brother, George (Jay O. Sanders), and his wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), are having to stop funding the college education of their son, Paulie, and take odd jobs to make ends meet. And they and the others, who include Thomas and George's sister Joyce (Amy Warren) and Thomas's first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), are watching as their beloved Rhinebeck is slowly swallowed up by rich financiers from out of town who love the village's charm just enough to destroy it from within.

These are not Trump supporters, mind you—these are classic New York Democrats who would have preferred Bernie Sanders but have settled for Clinton. Yet the underlying question is: Why? They may find her inspiring, in part, because of her history of activism and her perceived ability to do what few other women before her have managed. But whether they believe she'll change anything for them is another issue altogether, and one that Nelson addresses with a back-handed subtlety unheard of even in these plays that have so thrived on it.

"Bernie's looking better every day," George says at one point, halfheartedly admitting that the choice before them is less stark than anyone might prefer.

"I got talking to the young woman in front of me," Joyce says, speaking of her experience voting that morning. "I said, 'Pretty exciting, right?' She said, 'I just hope Hillary knows that my vote is 'not him.'"

An exchange just minutes before the end of the play acknowledges the coming storm even more directly.

"She's going to win, Hannah," Mary says. "Because the other is unthinkable."

"That’s what everyone’s saying," Karin insists.

"Is everyone always right?", Joyce asks.

The Gabriels are positioned to feel the on-the-ground sentiment much more personally, with their lives inextricable from the results of the election in a way that many of ours most likely are not. (This includes the Apples, from Nelson's other four-play cycle, who are referenced briefly here for what I believe is the first time.) They're hurting because the system has failed them, and if they've come to the conclusion that Clinton is the solution, the subtext is that it's primarily because of their liberal upbringings. Were they just a couple of hundred miles to the southwest, there's a nonzero likelihood they'd be Trump supporters—and might have a different perspective on the revolution that, for better or worse, is fast afoot.

It's Nelson's greatest strength as playwright and director here that he relegates politics mostly to the background; it's oddly secondary (it wouldn't be for anyone else) that this is at once the most and least momentous installment in the series—and perhaps Nelson's canon—with nothing and everything happening simultaneously, and at a dizzying pace.

Every moment is flooded with meaning, even if it doesn't seem so at first. The stunned, almost mechanical, way everyone goes about their duties in preparing dinner appears in heartbreaking contrast to the meals in previous plays, where actual nourishment was the goal, rather than just delaying the inevitable. And when everyone engages in conversation, it's to avoid confronting the terrors around them and try to understand the world more concretely. That involves numerous trips down memory lane, through which they all muse on the changing roles of women over the years, from Betty Crocker to Eleanor Roosevelt to the readers of the Ladies Home Journal of 1910 and, of course, Clinton, who is the subject of a one-woman play Karin is performing that night for the local theatre society. More touching, and more immediate examples are Patricia's mother and sister, who lived and died under circumstances that leave even the fraught contemporary Gabriel women wondering if they aren't really better off.

Nelson wraps all of this in a deeper discussion of time and mortality that consumes the full, light-speed 100 minutes the play runs, and yet does not once feel strained. He links it back so quietly and unassumingly to the family's money troubles, and their forced confrontation of the bigger picture, that you don't notice how far he's gone until the action has nearly concluded. He even gets laughs from it, most notably during a ghost story in which Patricia suggests to still-outsider Karin an existence well outside the one she may believe in. But pondering what else is out there is what these people do, what they have to do. "What about us?" is their favorite question, and the one that most vividly defines the trilogy. ("Who's there?", with its own raft of meanings, is the only marginally less loaded runner-up.)

As with all six previous entries in Nelson's of-the-moment dramatic experiment (he completed this script on Election Day morning, and it refers to the most current of current events), it's been adroitly designed by Susan Hilferty (costumes and set), Jason Ardizzone-West (set), Jennifer Tipton (lights), and Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens (sound), so as to plunge you into the middle of the decaying middle class the Gabriels represent. But, more than ever, it's the acting that sells it. Everyone is superb, though I was particularly taken with Maxwell's frill-free outlining the shell that remains of Patricia and the exhausted desperation with which Jay O. Sanders infuses George, who's at the uncomfortable nexus point of trying to hold together two families who want to fly apart.

Plunkett, at the center of it all, does perfect capstone work to what may be a performance for the ages (and what is certainly an upper-tier highlight of her outstanding career), extinguishing hope Mary's eyes bit by bit as everything around her fades into irrelevance. Asking for a cookie to decorate becomes a matter of paramount urgency, and when she's left alone onstage near the end, surveying what's left of the home and the man she loved, Mary doesn't need to utter a word to speak for everyone who's even been crippled by loss, whether of love, livelihood, or the anticipation of a better tomorrow.

Mary doesn't know it yet, but she's peering out into a new world. Whether it's better or worse than the one in which she's now ensconced is not for her—or I, or anyone—to know for sure. But Nelson's sumptuous travelogue of this remarkably unremarkable family is one well worth following, no matter what the next sunrise may bring.

Women of a Certain Age
Through December 4
Public Theater/LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street
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