Of late, the Kennedy Center is showing signs of coming to its dramatic senses. First, it made the Eisenhower Theater home to Ivo van Hove’s stunning revival of “A View From the Bridge.” Then it held open the center doors for Fiasco Theater’s exceptionally inventive “Into the Woods.” Now, in an indication that these selections might not have been flukes, another high-achieving production arrives on the Potomac: Richard Nelson’s gently captivating trilogy, “The Gabriels.”
The trio of plays, presented in the center’s warmly commodious upstairs Theater Lab, is subtitled “Election Year in the Life of One Family.” For those of you who’d rather spend a day pulling lint off sweaters than another moment reliving the campaign of 2016, fear not. Politics is a mere backdrop for the events of “The Gabriels,” which are set in a Rhinebeck, N.Y., kitchen on three days, in March, September and on election night 2016. What’s at stake as the Gabriels prepare and cook three meals, in real time, cuts much closer and with far more basic decency to the life you and I live than anything that was chewed on, shrilly, relentlessly, in the public sphere last year.
That is to say, the struggles of this middle-class clan, juggling the challenges of survival as elderly parents get sicker and college bills pile higher, are so urgently and pertinently set forth that you’ll feel as if Nelson had been at your own dinner table, taking notes. The wisdom conveyed through each of the one-act plays — “Hungry,” “What Did You Expect?” and “Women of a Certain Age” — extends to the depth of emotional truth embodied by six wonderful actors. By degree, every one of them lays bare for us the Gabriels’ latticework of friction and connection, and not ever by taking the theatrical low road, the one that wends its way through histrionics.
Over the collective course of 5¼ hours, tensions come to the fore without a single voice being raised. What a glorious accomplishment.
“The Gabriels” is launched in a period of mourning, but it’s by no means somber. The family’s shining star, Thomas, a revered playwright, has recently died, and his widow and third wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), is shredded by grief. The outdated kitchen of the Gabriels’ childhood home, with its old electric stove and blocky wood furnishings, is a kind of chapel of consolation, where Mary cooks comfortingly, alongside other family members: her mother-in-law, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), Thomas’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren) and brother George (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley). For unsettling measure, they’re joined by Thomas’s first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), but she’s not the disruptive device that playwright-director Nelson might set us up for. That would be too pat. And “The Gabriels” is anything but formulaic.
In its understated, contemporary hyper-realism, “The Gabriels” feels as revolutionary in a way as van Hove’s minimalist “View From the Bridge” was, in its attempt to upend expectations for 1950s naturalism. We’re true eavesdroppers on the Gabriels; Nelson’s actors speak in conversational tones that will at times strike some theatergoers as overly hushed. Although a matrix of 14 or so microphones hangs over the stage and something like 20 speakers are suspended above the audience, one does have to strain to catch all of the dialogue.
But it’s worth the extra effort, and it’s certainly worth doing it, for all three pieces. The optimal method is on one of the marathon days, when you can see them in succession at 1:30 p.m., 4:15 and 8. Each originally was unveiled at New York’s Public Theater on the date on which the play takes place. But seeing them all together allows the richness of the repast — like the sausage casseroles and apple crumbles the actors assemble — to simmer all the more rewardingly.
Threaded through the plays are nuances of character and relationship that make even an exchange of glances seem as if it’s a twist of the plot. Joyce’s forcing questions on fading Patricia feels both like passive-aggressiveness and a last grab for affection; Mary’s growing acceptance of Karin’s presence, the sealing of a compassionate bond; Hannah’s prodding of generous George, a reminder of the stressful undercurrents in a family with more love than material resources.
You can no more speak in isolation of the specialness of any of the actors’ contributions than you could easily separate the ingredients stewing in the ratatouille on the stove. After the first show, they return to the stage as your own neighbors. And the kitchen becomes such a familiar gathering place that you don’t even expect secrets to be spilled. Knowledge of others so bred in the bone doesn’t, in real life, provoke a lot of dramatic revelation.
At one point, one of the Gabriels describes a conceit Thomas came up with for one of his plays. A pair of men bearing terrible news can’t bring themselves to knock on the affected family’s door. So they procrastinate in the street, watching through a window as the family goes about its comforting routines. That’s a little like the experience of listening in on the Gabriels. Major storms, even catastrophes, may be brewing in the world, but they like the rest of us, know only how to get by, one small moment at a time.
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Set, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West; costumes, Hilferty; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens. Each play runs about 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets: $49 for individual plays; $120 for three-play marathon. Through Jan. 22 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.