Spending time with family can be as freeing as it is frustrating. People act badly thinking unconditional love will prevail, and it usually does. The Apple clan, the creation of playwright Richard Nelson, is no exception. We come to know the Apples of Rhinebeck, N.Y., over the course of “The Apple Family Plays,” four plays that take place at the dinner table in consecutive years. The family members air their political differences and often disagree, but they also rely on each other.
Studio Theatre is staging the first two plays — “That Hopey Changey Thing,” which takes place on election night 2010, and “Sweet and Sad,” on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — in repertory and starring some of Washington’s most celebrated actors.
“They have this sort of scratchiness toward each other, but they don’t let it affect their love for each other,” says Rick Foucheux, who plays brother Richard Apple. “They can jab at each other and still come away with a hug and a kiss.”
As it turns out, theater families enjoy many of the same benefits as biological kin. All of the actors, save one, have known each other for years, which comes in handy when mounting two plays simultaneously with a short rehearsal schedule. The actors were able to jump right in, occasionally step on each other’s toes and end up as close as ever.
Get to know the Apple family members, as well as the actors who play them.
A heart attack has left the former actor with amnesia; he remembers some things clearly, but more recent events disappear like a vapor. He’s the brother of the Apple siblings’ absentee father (their mother has died).
Ted van Griethuysen
The six-time Helen Hayes Award winner and Shakespeare Theatre Company fixture played Zeus opposite Sarah Marshall’s Io and alongside Elizabeth Pierotti in “The Steward of Christendom,” also at Studio. Van Griethuysen says he was drawn to Benjamin because of his complicated interior life, and for sentimental reasons as well.
“I get to sing ‘All Through the Night,’ the Welsh lullaby, which I’ve known since I was a little boy,” the actor says. “My mother used to play it on the piano and we’d sing it at night. It’s a song that always makes me cry, I love it so. And then I get to read a poem by Walt Whitman . . . and all of these things speak to particular interests or things that mean something to me. There was a lot in the play that seemed to say, ‘This is for me.’ ”
BENJAMIN’S NIECES & NEPHEW
New Yorker Jane is the only Apple sibling who doesn’t live in Rhinebeck. In the first play, she has started dating Tim and is thriving professionally. In the second, she’s struggling financially due to the recession.
Schraf has a nearly three-decade relationship with some of her co-stars, and this is the third time she’ll be playing Rick Foucheux’s sister. But this experience is much different than that of “Ah, Wilderness!” or “Eastern Standard.”
“It’s unique and complicated,” she says. “We’re New Yorkers, we’re pretty political, we’re pretty politically conflicted. We’re aligned in some ways and estranged in other ways. It’s a wonderful can of worms.”
In the first play, the outspoken liberal who is married to the unseen Adam, is active in politics and content with being a bit of an outsider. But in the year that passes between plays, a tragedy softens her views and makes her more keen to fit in with her family.
Before a 10-year hiatus to raise her son, Pierotti played alongside Schraf and Sarah Marshall in Arena Stage’s “The Women.” Breaking back into the scene has been a challenge, she says, but getting this part has made her “the happiest person on 14th Street.”
“They are important plays,” she says. “They’re good plays for D.C. They’re political, but they’re not just one-sided. They show many sides of politics, and so I think that the audience members will be shaking their head in agreement and shaking their head in disagreement.”
The unmarried high school English teacher takes care of Benjamin. She’s an observant type, although during the second play (after one of her sisters moves in with her), she seems to become a more active participant.
Another Helen Hayes winner, Marshall knew that director Serge Seiden was keen to create a family-like atmosphere for the show, which appealed to the longtime actress, who starred with Schraf in “Mikveh” at Theater J in 2010 and with Foucheux at Round House Theater in 2002’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
“There are some very dear friends of mine in this company, and all that history that we have, we didn’t have to do family work,” Marshall says. “I’m comfortable in a way I’m not normally. I feel safe and I am freer to create, I suppose — say what I feel, move where I want, and I assume if they like it, they’ll let me know, and if they don’t, they’ll let me know.”
The lawyer finds himself at a crossroads politically and professionally during the first play. He wants to make the switch to the more lucrative private sector and seems to be swinging a bit to the right, which agitates some of his siblings.
The two-time Helen Hayes winner calls these scripts a “treat for an actor,” given how naturalistic the scenes are and the way comedy is woven into occasionally tragic moments. He compares the play to extremely entertaining eavesdropping.
“That’s what the theater is, the opportunity to do what your mother said was impolite,” Foucheux says. “Imagine if you could sit outside your neighbor’s window and listen to them having a family conversation around dinner.” But Foucheux admits that the Apples have something else going for them: “Some families are more interesting than others.”
The only non-Apple at the dinner table, Tim is the outsider. In “Hopey Changey,” the actor is meeting the family for the first time and things are looking up. But in the second play, he has started waiting tables and is contemplating other careers.
The New York actor doesn’t just play an outsider — he’s also the only cast member who has never worked with any of his co-stars. Of course, that has helped in its own way.
“They all work so beautifully together, it’s lovely to watch,” Webb says.
“Some of them have worked together so often that they seem to have a shorthand. I don’t have that with any of them, but I don’t need it,” he adds with a laugh.
There was something about the hugeness of the project — mounting two plays simultaneously — that compelled Webb to come to Washington to take the role. “The main draw for me was the way that we’re doing it and the fact that it’s two full-length plays being put up at the same time — yikes! — it makes me nervous just to say that,” he says. “At least it’s the same set, we all keep saying to ourselves.”
That Hopey Changey Thing; Sweet and Sad. In repertory Wednesday through Dec. 29.
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org. $39-$85.