TimeLine’s half-bushel of Richard Nelson’s four plays about the Apple family benefits immensely from a potent core of actors.
Nelson’s cycle, as recently published in a collected volume, bears the subtitle “Scenes from Life in the Country.” There’s a double meaning there: “The country” could refer to the sleepy upstate New York burg of Rhinebeck, the Apples’ family seat, or to the United States. Each of the four plays offers a snapshot of the adult Apple siblings and their beloved uncle Benjamin on a day with political or historical significance for the country—which was also the day each originally opened at the Public Theatre in New York, allowing Nelson’s check-in with the family to also serve as a temperature-taking for the national mood.
TimeLine presents the first and third plays in the cycle, set on Election Day in 2010 and 2012, respectively. In the first, That Hopey Changey Thing, the generally liberal family gathers for a dinner in the hours before the polls close in the midterm election, the conversation taking in their concerns over the lack of progress in the first years of the Obama administration as well as their concerns about Benjamin’s memory loss following a heart attack. In the third, Sorry, the siblings convene early on the morning of the Obama-Romney election in preparation to move the now increasingly confused Benjamin to an assisted-living facility. (The second play, Sweet and Sad, set on the tenth anniversary of September 11, was staged here by Profiles Theatre in 2012.)
The plays are nearly free of the kinds of explosive revelations and quarrels that mark many family dramas; instead, we see a close-knit family catching up on and reckoning with the latest developments in their lives, with warmth, care and familiarity. Any conflict is for the most part not between these characters but inside them.
And under Louis Contey’s perceptive direction, TimeLine’s extraordinary cast—made up of five longstanding company members and Chicago luminary Mike Nussbaum—makes these relationships believably deep, rich and careworn. The connections forged among Janet Ulrich Brooks, Juliet Hart, Mechelle Moe and David Parkes as the Apple siblings, and their palpable concern for one another and Nussbaum’s heartbreaking uncle Benjamin, are practically unparalleled.
The sharp, sublime Brooks, in particular, facing off against Nussbaum, demonstrates she’s well on her way to equally deserved status among the most august Chicago actors. (TimeLine artistic director PJ Powers appears in Hopey as the actor boyfriend of Moe; in Sorry, Nelson obliquely and amusingly suggests Powers’s character is off in Chicago, performing in Court Theatre’s then-current production of James Joyce’s The Dead—a musical for which Nelson wrote the book.)
The current-affairs conversations in the scripts—mild disagreements over Andrew Cuomo or Kirsten Gillibrand, discussions of ongoing political fights over Obamacare or campaign finance reform—naturally have a different effect now than when they were actually current; it can start to feel like listening to old NPR broadcasts. But it’s the Apple family that drives these works, and in embodying and humanizing them, TimeLine’s productions couldn’t be juicier.
TimeLine Theatre Company. By Richard Nelson. Directed by Louis Contey. With Janet Ulrich Brooks, Mike Nussbaum, Juliet Hart, Mechelle Moe, David Parkes, PJ Powers. Running times: That Hopey Changey Thing 1hr 40mins, no intermission; Sorry 1hr 50mins, no intermission.