In the four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, gods and mortals struggle for control, ending for the gods in a catastrophic fall. The cycle runs roughly 15 hours, and is set in locations from the Rhine to Valhalla. The three plays of playwright Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels cycle visit one extended family of six on three days (March 4th, September 16th, and November 8th) in 2016. The total running time is just over five hours, during which the family sit in their kitchen in Rhinebeck, New York, preparing dinners.
Yet Nelson’s extraordinary work—in a quietly definitive production that he himself directed—is, for me, as moving and epochal as Wagner’s.
The subtitle of The Gabriels is “Election Year in the Life of One Family.” Each of the three component plays has a separate identity—they are called, in order, Hungry, What Did You Expect?, and Women of a Certain Age—and in fact, they were performed separately at the New York Public Theater, before a few precious marathon performances were offered in December. It was a marathon that I saw, and frankly, I can’t imagine it any other way—think of The Gabriels as three hypnotically long one acts, during which very little—but also, everything—happens.
Some of what occurs is, of course, American politics. But that subtitle suggests something more central and concrete than what we get. The Gabriel family discuss current issues, about which their allegiances are sometimes oblique and changing.
But the events and anxieties which have led to this difficult, even perilous, year are more personal. These circumstances are set in place before the action—the previous November, Thomas Gabriel, one of the brothers, died in late middle-age. His widow, Mary (the luminous, magnificent Maryann Plunket) is particularly struggling—a doctor experienced in treating others, she seems superficially in control, but there’s a deeper sense of rudderlessness that has left her emotionally stalled.
These qualities—torpor amidst an inexorable downward pull—can be seen in all the family members, who also include George (Jay O. Sanders) and Joyce (Amy Warren), Thomas’s brother and sister; Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife; Karin, Thomas’s first wife (Meg Gibson); and the family matriarch, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell). One or two of trials they undergo—personal and professional losses, aging, poor financial decisions with serious consequences—might have solutions; but taken together, we wonder whether the Gabriels can survive. Yet day to day, that’s exactly what they do.
Nelson is often compared to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why, especially in his compassionate but unflinching depiction of a diverse yet unified community. Seen here, to me he’s more the successor to Thornton Wilder—like Our Town, The Gabriels is an elegy for America, where personal stories stand in for a kind of heroic national character.
As with Wilder, Nelson is an idealist. Though the Gabriels aren’t faultless, they are, to a person, bright, charming, intellectually curious, and lovable. Even while I was watching the cycle—and so caught up in the moment that they seemed as real and important to me as my own family—a little voice kept nagging: Do such people really exist? Aren’t they too-good-to-be-true, these working stiffs who spend their free time talking about Edith Wharton and celebrating Melville? Isn’t this romantic wish fulfillment on Nelson’s part, in service of a poignant but questionable thesis (that the Gabriels are what ordinary Americans on the brink of losing their homes are really like)?
I can’t answer these questions. But I can tell you that in the end, it didn’t matter much in this production that, paradoxically, seems almost not to be “a production” at all, so real and truthful does every moment feel.
The entire cast is superb, but Plunkett and Roberta Maxwell are especially memorable. Maxwell in particular gives what could be a masterclass. I wish I could send every actor I know to watch her—in part, because it’s so difficult to describe what she “does.” Sometimes, it seems to be almost nothing, since there’s a stillness and inscrutability as she sits silently, watching the action around her. Yet every moment is lit from within by a heartbreaking sense of dignity in the face of physical decline.
The last installment of The Gabriels is set on election day—we take our leave of the family before they know the results. When I saw the plays at the final marathon on December 18th, what for many of us had been the unthinkable was now reality. And it left a haunting sense of emptiness—we’ll never learn how Mary, George, Patricia, and the rest will handle a Donald Trump presidency.
Yet somehow, we do know exactly what they’re going to do—the next day, at least. They’ll wake up, face the world, as they do every other day. And they will make dinner.
The Gabriels next plays at the Kennedy Center, 7-22 January 2017. For more information, visit the website.