‘The Gabriels’ — A Fictional Family We Come to Care About

Call me crazy, but I miss the Gabriels. And I worry about them.

More and more, I have been thinking about the Gabriels and what they might have made of all that’s happening, and how and what they’re doing.

It’s impossible to know, of course, because the Gabriels are a fictional family, the amazing creation of playwright Richard Nelson, who have been ensconced in the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. They’ve come to live in a package of three plays, “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” and they are still living out their experience through Jan. 22, two days after the inauguration.

The three plays — each with its own pointed title: “Hungry,” “What Did You Expect?” and Women of a Certain Age” — originally appeared somewhat in real time during the course of the 2016 election year. The last play ended with the characters, having voted, not knowing the result of the election.

Times and things have changed since then. We, the audience, know a lot more, and our store of knowledge about the times is increasing almost helplessly by leaps and bounds. The Gabriel family members don’t know anything about what has happened since, although even they felt some portents.

“The Gabriels” is not a political work per se, in the sense that the table talk is only occasionally touched by politics. Donald Trump is never mentioned by name. Both hope and frustration rise and fall over the nature and fortunes of Hillary Clinton on occasion. The campaign itself is more like a storm or a series of storms outside the door.

This is a family closely held together by its individual ties. They are by no means remarkable in the usual sense of the word, but their lives are filled with worries, sorrows, practical troubles. We see them in full in “Hungry,” in the aftermath of the death of the family’s outstanding achiever, the acclaimed playwright Tom. The remainder of the family is in various stages of mourning, sitting around the table in a small kitchen as they start to prepare a meal in real time, no less.

This is the family: Tom’s sister Joyce, a theater costume designer; his brother George, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker; his third wife Mary, a retired doctor; his mother Patricia, who has been living in an assisted-living home; George’s wife Hannah, a caterer; and Karin Gabriel, Tom’s first wife, an actress and drama teacher.

Needless to say, this family is made up of particular people, living in the upstate New York town of Rhinebeck, which is experiencing sometimes painful changes. They’re educated, by and large, and employed, although, in some cases just barely. They’re interested in creative and artistic matters as well as politics and the pragmatic urgency of changes in their lives.

The Gabriels are not an example of populist revolt, inner-city politics or Wall Street concerns. They are squarely, if with fragility, in the Democratic middle class in terms of their thinking and talk.

Given that, the wonders of these plays are plentiful. There’s a generosity of spirit that runs through the characters that make them recognizable in a neighborly fashion. If you lived next door to them, you would care about them and know what’s happening to them. That’s because Nelson has imbued the play with a shower of details and identifiers, from dishes and furniture and clothing to the words used and the care given to the presence of everyone. Everything that happens and is heard seems germane and familiar to our own lives and, I think, the lives of other Americans, not the Gabriels alone. It’s a particularized kind of universality that provides the works’ familiarity, right down to the food being cooked.

Things happen here. The Gabriels as a group and in terms of how they can lead their lives are steadily being diminished and eroded. The death of Tom has released a kind of recognition of the fragility of their lives. George has lost — in almost cruelly casual fashion — a work contract that he can’t replace; grandmother Patricia is fading; Mary and Karin, tentatively and with grace, are forming a two-wives friendship.

The whole process — and they have to face the prospect of selling their family home with everything in it — seems totally organic, natural, as if you’ve overheard the play and the characters. The actors, it should be noted, are exceptional, without seeming rote or uniform. I would have to single out and mention Jay O. Sanders as George because, for one thing, he’s the only man in the play, although the ghost of Tom remains a strong presence. As the character is written and played, it and Sanders evade every opportunity for cliché through simple honesty.

The whole cast is excellent: Mary Ann Plunkett as Mary, the remarkably steady Roberta Maxwell as Patricia, the no-nonsense air of Lynn Hawley as Hannah, Amy Warren as the inquisitive Joyce and especially Meg Gibson as the tentative but precise Helen, always waiting to become a part of the family.

I’m going to miss the Gabriels. I hope they (and we) will be okay.


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