Photo – Toni Wilkinson
What a clever concept for writer and director Richard Nelson to come up with; unsurprising when you look at his prodigious and brilliant body of work. To view three plays representing a tumultuous year in US politics from the point of view of the Gabriels, brings grief and heartache but also ironic, sharp humour. This is an honest, hardworking, middle class family already up against the odds in these most uncertain of times politically and financially. Critics have compared Nelson’s work to Chekov but how much more extraordinarily touching is it to be set in a recent contemporary scenario with which a larger audience can immediately identify. The family have come together to scatter the ashes of the late Thomas, the eldest of the clan, a playwright and author of note, in the Hudson River. It’s cold and warming comfort food is required. Thus the title Hungry.
All three plays begin with the cast members dressing the set, the kitchen of the family home to create a cosy refuge from the forces of outside world. The small family live in a provincial town called Rhinebeck which is close enough to New York to have begun the infiltration of resented rich city dwellers creating weekenders.
The matriarch is Thomas’s mother Patricia (an impressive Roberta Maxwell) indomitable in the past, she is now a frail figure. Mary, Thomas’s widow (Maryann Plunkett) is the heart and soul of the family and the play. It is she who organizes the cooking of a real meal onstage in each of the plays. This unusual device underlines the willingness of the characters to pull together as a team despite their differences. Thomas’s younger brother George is played with great charm by Jay O Sanders, his steadfast wife Hannah is strongly performed by Lyn Hawley and the youngest Gabriel sister, the prickly, witty Joyce by Amy Warren. The odd character out is Karin, Thomas’s first wife, actress and teacher, Meg Gibson who is subtly insinuating herself into the fold.
This struggling middle class family vote together as one for the only possible candidate they can see on the horizon, Hillary Clinton, whom they see has turned out to be less perfect than originally perceived.
By the second play What Did You Expect? The situation has gone from bad to worse. A further mortgage has been put upon the family home, and payments for Patricia’s institutionalised care are three months in arrears. The treasured Bechstein piano has been sold, George’s lucrative carpentry contract has been cancelled, Mary’s nursing licences have been allowed to expire, Hannah’s catering job is over and, like the Gabriel grandmother before her, she is working as an hotel maid.
Then it becomes clear that by unknowingly falling for a scurrilous scam, Patricia has lost a significant amount of money. By this stage she has fallen further into senility, her frequent lament becomes “I don’t remember.”
By the time Women of a Certain Age opens the Gabriels are on the eve of destruction. On the all-important election-day this all-American family is preparing to sell their house and break apart. This sorry saga echoes that of so many families who lost jobs, failed to meet mortgage payments, cancelled plans to send their children to college and sank almost without trace. “Who are we?” Thomas has written in his notebooks. “Is this really our country.”
Though it sounds a tale of unremitting gloom this is not so. Underwriting their tragic circumstances is bravery and an undeniable spirit. Quoting her late husband Mary declares “Things will work out.”
Her only solution when asked “What are you going to do?” is to avoid thinking about anything except the next small step she must try to take.
This was a superb ensemble work, the cast was virtually faultless in their cohesion and the subtle interplay between the characters. The script was excellent and an accurate reflection of family gatherings with people interrupting and talking over others. My one regret was that I (and other audience members I spoke to) could not catch all the dialogue. When I asked a technician about this, in the foyer between plays, I was told the director had instructed the cast not to project. While this was understandable and made for a totally realistic family exchange it was very frustrating to miss a section of dialogue or a throwaway line that drew chuckles from other audience members.
The Subiaco Theatre is not a big theatre, the acoustics are good and the almost “in the round” seating format worked well but the suspended overhead microphones were clearly not strong enough to deliver dialogue with clarity.
This is the dramatic centrepiece of the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival.
A Public Theater production
Hungry • What Did You Expect? • Women of a Certain Age
by Richard Nelson
Director Richard Nelson
Venue: Subiaco Arts Centre, WA
Dates: 11 – 18 Feb 2017
Part of the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival