All in the Families

Richard Nelson’s newest play at Hunter College’s theater space chronicles the impact of a matriarch’s death from COVID

| 15 Sep 2021 | 10:45

He has created three families that may not be ours, but have come to feel like they are. Playwright Richard Nelson, at 70, has had a stunning career devoted to the written words, and hearing those words out loud. Amid a lifetime of performances and places, (he headed up Yale’s Playwrighting School, and was involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company) he is probably most famous for plays chronicling the Apple, Gabriel and Michaels families. There have been a dozen of them, all —until now — produced by the Public Theatre — almost one a year, and usually focused on a certain moment: an election, an anniversary, a real estate decision. He even did three on Zoom during this difficult intermission, which were watched by more than a hundred thousand viewers around the world.

The newest — and apparently, last — of these is called, “What Happened: the Michaels Abroad,” and here the subject is death. The matriarch of that clan, Rose, has recently died of COVID, and her family has congregated to celebrate her work as a choreographer. What’s different this time are the places involved. The play itself takes place in France, not in Rhinebeck, where all Nelson’s families —and plays — live. And the production itself is not at the Public Theatre, but at Hunter College’s theater space.

The space works just fine with less than 100 (masked and vaccinated) audience members surrounding the group as they do what they always do in Nelson’s family plays: talk, reminisce, read old letters, dance (more than you think) and cook. Yes, these could also be called kitchen plays as you watch the preparations and smell the food as it exits the oven. Look inside your Playbill and you’ll find the recipe to the Cauliflower Lasagne we just watched them eat.

“Little Societies”

I had a lovely chat with Nelson about the family plays. I told him what my dad used to say, about life, ”It’s all relatives.” “Families are a wonderful way of talking about society,” the playwright agrees. “They are, in fact, little societies. These are not strangers, these are people with deep histories and that allows for profound dynamics. Don’t forget, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Lear’ are essentially family plays.”

No one was more surprised than Nelson when a company from Berlin asked — a few years back — if they could do a version of the Apple Family plays. “I asked, ‘why?’” he said. “These are so specific. But I was assured that the plays — with subtitles and all —would transcend that. Then they were done many places. I watched a young man in Hong Kong transfixed for seven hours ... watching four of the plays in one day. I certainly learned that the more specific, the more universal.”

Which explains why his trio of Zoom family plays drew an astounding number of viewers around the globe. “It would have taken me a year at one theater here to reach that many people,” he says.

Why did he take on this 11-year journey with three families? “I just wanted to look at my little world of Rhinebeck through different lenses,” he says. “It began with the Apples’ journey moving there. Then the Gabriels, who were deeply rooted there, were being pushed out. With the Michaels, I wanted to create an artistic family, dealing with the economics of that and ultimately, I wanted to deal with the threat of death.”

State of the Arts

It’s fair to say that Nelson has managed to have a productive pandemic, but he has mixed feelings about that. “I wish it didn’t happen, of course,” he says, “but I am pleased I had a method, a vehicle, which allowed me to express what was going on within so many families.”

“What Happened” also includes a good bit of discussion about the state of the arts, even touching on the subject, ever subtly, about the thorny issue of race. As for the playwright himself, “I so wanted to wave the flag for my profession, both in the play and in my life by doing this one. We had five days of rehearsals and I warned the cast that there was a 30-40% chance we would not open.” (He was speaking about the threat of COVID, and the audience here follows strict guidelines.) “But let me tell you, there was pure joy every day in being in a real room with real actors.”

Speaking of emotion, how does the playwright feel about bidding farewell to the complicated relatable families of Rhinebeck? “I feel mostly tiredness,” he says, “but very happy that we got this one on stage. In the end, we are left with a lot of uncertainty, including where will these people settle?”

And if that’s not the perfect title for one more ...

“With the Michaels, I wanted to create an artistic family, dealing with the economics of that and ultimately, I wanted to deal with the threat of death.” Playwright Richard Nelson