Witness to a Pandemic

Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken (clockwise) in the livestreamed world premiere of the Apple Family Play “What Do We Need To Talk About?,” written and directed by Richard Nelson.
Courtesy of The Public Theater

Playwright Richard Nelson’s genius is in finding poetry in the quotidian. The simple acts of life unfolding in the kitchens of Rhinebeck, New York, are on the surface uneventful, yet always profoundly moving and human. Nelson is a writer who, as Emily from “Our Town” observes in wonder, appears to “realize life while they live it.”

In the course of his plays about three families — the Apples, the Gabriels, and the Michaels — Rhinebeck becomes Nelson’s Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi setting for much of his work. For Nelson, Rhinebeck is more than an arbitrary locale, it is a crucible where change is inevitable and out of the control of these families. Politics, economics, and history always hover just outside the homes where they gather to negotiate life — though negotiate is not quite the right words since they have no choice but to deal with what comes along.

Richard Nelson’s new play on Zoom revisits one of his iconic families

The first of Nelson’s series, the Apple Plays, consisted of four plays, and each opened on a significant date that impacted our culture, including the 2010 midterm elections, the anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential election, and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The plays, first presented by the Public Theater individually and later in repertory, were performed by largely the same cast, so beyond the intimacy of the writing, audiences began to recognize and know the characters on a deeper level. One left each play feeling as though these people were, indeed, real and that we had wrestled with the issues of the plays on the same plane as the characters.

As May 2020 begins, theaters have been closed for nearly seven weeks and there is no return in sight, at least not until a vaccine or proven treatment is developed. Robbed of that communal experience, we are sheltering at home, cut off in many cases from our families and friends and sometimes even our partners. It is a time unlike any other we have lived through, for which we have no frame of reference and for which, if we’re being honest, there is no real end in sight. How do we cope?

Theater becomes, as it so often has in challenging times, a lifeline that helps us understand and contextualize experience. Nelson’s new play “What Do We Need to Talk About?” brings us back to the Apple family as they gather on a Zoom call. It is, to my knowledge, the first play written specifically for this medium, and it’s brilliant. The kitchen tables where the families have gathered have been replaced by webcams where they see one another in tiled boxes on a screen. One doesn’t need to know these characters to be drawn into their lives; the play exists easily on its own.

Attorney Richard Apple, who works for Governor Andrew Cuomo —who is suddenly very popular and about whom Richard says he’s learned to deal with over the years — is sheltering with his sister Barbara, who was released from the hospital after beating COVID-19. They are joined by sister Marian, a second-grade teacher, their other sister Jane, a writer, and Jane’s partner Tim, an actor/ restaurant manager who is currently unemployed. Though they live together, Jane and Tim are separated as Tim quarantines upstairs after having tested positive for the coronavirus.

There is the typical, and highly believable, sibling bantering. Marian and Barbara call out Richard for trying to rewrite family history. Tim worries about getting unemployment insurance, remembers the real actor Mark Blum who died recently from COVID complications, the return of the theater as we knew it, and the struggles he and others have in creating art in the midst of this crisis. Jane talks about a writing project she’s working on as well as women who have been forgotten. It’s all highly recognizable. Even the family’s Uncle Ben, who figured in the original plays but has since died, is included through a recorded poem Barbara has saved.

The dramatic center of the piece, though, is that each character is asked to tell a story as in the classic work “The Decameron,” a series of tales written during the 14th century Black Death plague as told by people sheltering at home. It’s a great device that both entertains and takes us deeper into the characters. At one point Barbara remarks after one of the tales, “I didn’t think about the pandemic once during that story.”

Nelson directs the company, which includes Jay O. Sanders as Richard, Maryann Plunkett as Barbara, Laila Robbins as Marian, Stephen Kunken as Tim, Sally Murphy as Jane, and John DeVries as Ben. This remarkable company brings the same level of nuance and depth that they’ve given these characters on stage, and while the audience is distant, the connection is palpable.

The piece is deceptively powerful, particularly for those of us who are finding Zoom an important way of connecting during this time. Nelson captures one of the oddest realities of Zoom calls — and it’s beautifully realized by Plunkett. While the calls go on, we can feel the visual, visceral connection to the important people in our lives. Then, we disconnect and find ourselves instantly alone, voices stilled, our friends and families back in their separate realities — and we feel the actual distance more intensely.

Experiencing this piece and its aftermath is not like walking out of a theater where one talks to a companion and reflects on what was just seen. Nelson’s plays have demanded that, and those ensuing conversations and sharing the connection to his characters and their lives are part of the joy of seeing his work. Watching alone on YouTube is new and uncharted emotional territory, yet in the case of “What Do We Need to Talk About?,” even as the screen goes dark, we feel for a few lingering moments that we have truly been able to connect with these souls.

For that we can be grateful.

WHAT DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT?: The Apple Family: Conversations on Zoom | The Public Theater | Streaming on YouTube; extended through Jun. 28 | youtube.com/watch?v=R76oRm76mMM&feature=youtu.be | Free, though contributions to benefit The Public Theater are encouraged

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