With “Women of a Certain Age,” Richard Nelson brings to a shuddering close “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.” Each of the plays in this poignant domestic trilogy is set on the eve of a consequential political moment, and observes the impact of political change on a single family living in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The playwright’s own intensely personal direction, at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, is brilliantly sustained by a tight ensemble of actors who have been with the project since the beginning.
Like the two previous plays in this deeply involving cycle, “Hungry” and “What Did You Expect?,” this one finds the Gabriel family preparing a meal in their homey kitchen, designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West and warmed by Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. But unlike those festive meals of times past, tonight’s menu consists of a humble shepherd’s pie and a recipe for “paintbrush cookies” the women found in “Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls.”
The mood is melancholy because Thomas Gabriel, a published author and the head of the family, died a year ago, and the home of their childhood is up for sale. As the family gathers to clean out the house for a garage sale, relationships are reaffirmed, memories are stirred, and eyes grow moist.
Mary Gabriel, Thomas’s third wife and now widow, quietly rules this roost, as does the sublime actress Maryann Plunkett, who steps back into the role she now owns. She and everyone else is making a fuss over Patricia, the matriarch of the family played to heartbreaking effect by the treasured Roberta Maxwell, home for the night from the adult care facility where she’s been living since having a stroke.
Son George, the gentle piano teacher and furniture craftsman played with grave sensitivity by Jay O. Sanders, is doing the heavy work. His wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley, always supportive), a dependable fixture in this family, is mixing the dough for cookies and helping Mary sort through the box of children’s books destined for the quick-sale table at the garage sale.
Even Thomas’s first wife, Karin, a one-time actress (more recently, teacher) played with self-effacing mildness by Meg Gibson, has a room in the family home and a place in this unorthodox household. Cast in Nelson’s ultra-naturalistic style, the voices are measured, thoughtful, comfortable — and comforting.
In this production that opened on the day of the actual presidential vote, there is no prolonged or heated discussion of the all-important election, although these politically aware people know what’s at stake. “She’s going to win,” Mary reassures the others in a moment of doubt, “because the other is unthinkable.” But whoever wins, it’s unlikely to lift the fortunes of this family, whose losses are compounded with every sweeping social change. Like a group of Chekhovian ancestors, their liberal-minded way of life is in a state of suspension, hovering on the brink of extinction.
Theirs is a classic family history of bad choices made in a hard economy. Mary, a doctor, was so consumed with taking care of husband Thomas that she thoughtlessly let all her licenses to practice expire. Thomas’s opinionated but unhelpful sister Joyce (Amy Warren, appropriately annoying) lives her own life in Brooklyn, but can’t seem to rise above her associate-level position as a theatrical costume designer.
Since selling the piano for ready cash, George can no longer make a living as a piano teacher. And to help pay off the ill-advised mortgage Patricia took out on the house, he and Hannah have been working part-time jobs that won’t pay for their son’s college education.
A gathering sense of dread grows heavier as election night wears on and Nelson gradually reveals the extent of the family’s changing fortunes. Until, at the end of the play, Mary stands alone in the kitchen, her face registering wave after wave of forgotten memories and unbearable losses as her country moves forward into the future.