REVIEW: The Gabriels | Public Theater | PIAF 2017


The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family

Review by Cicely Binford


Richard Nelson‘s The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is fresh off the boat from America, and very nearly fresh off the playwright’s pen. His trilogy of plays chronicling the fictional Gabriel family’s year in the lead-up to America’s presidential election in November 2016 is a masterpiece of understated American realism. The fact that these plays were written and performed almost in real time last year, that they are so finely wrought, so superbly executed and so acutely perceptive, is simply awe-inspiring.

The Gabriels are a fictional working-class/artist-class family from Rhinebeck, NY. Their clan gathers to spread the ashes of the recently deceased playwright Thomas Gabriel, who is alluded to throughout the three plays, and whose presence and voice is strongly felt through his writings, sayings and stories about him. His wife Mary (Maryann Plunkett), the woman around whom the plays are anchored, his brother George (Jay O. Sanders) and George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), his sister Joyce (Amy Warren), his ex-wife Karin (Meg Gibson), and his mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) circulate in and out of the kitchen to prepare dinner on three separate occasions that coincide with important presidential election dates.

Each of the plays begins with the family (led first by Plunkett) setting the scene with an armful each of various kitchen props, arranging each item in its exact right place. The props are important – they give the actors ‘something to do’ while the psychology, emotion and humour of each moment unfolds. Their conversation is as close to normal conversation as you can get on the stage, I think; the actors halt and think about their words as they speak, they talk over each other, they check in with each other to make sure they’re getting their stories right. They listen and respond to each other with thought, rather than waiting for their cue and reciting their lines with the corresponding emotion. I only point this out because it’s a style of performance we don’t often see in WA theatre.

In fact, the emotion here is restrained throughout, as it might be in real life after the death of a loved one. No one wails or protests, no one shouts or argues in anger for dramatic effect – any cutting remarks or displays of emotion are mild and subtle, nothing resulting in a major clash that threatens to break the family apart. This is a family that cares for each other and looks out for each other, with the most often uttered phrase from each of them, “What can I do?” To help. To pitch in. To lighten each other’s load.

This is the way the Gabriels will get through the uncertain times they are facing; their lives are impacted by the political situation unfolding throughout the election year, and this is interwoven with their experiences on a personal level. The playwright demonstrates that politics have, in fact, gotten very personal in the last year, perhaps more so than in previous elections. Hillary Clinton is referred to frequently, but always with an air of caution – she’s not exactly the kind of liberal hero they were hoping for, but when faced with the alternative…

The rise of Trump is treated with kid gloves. He’s mentioned no more than I’d guess 3 or 4 times by name through the course of the three plays, as if it’s just too painful a prospect to think that he might soon become president. Now that Trump has been elected, we have a certain 20/20 hindsight vision as audience members that didn’t exist when these plays were first performed. But I’m sure we’re no less incredulous at Trump’s ascension, even in hindsight. And the sense of uncertainty and darkness that emerges in the plays regarding the country’s future certainly still exists, and not just for Americans. Even Australians feel it.

There are too many vital issues raised in these works to name here at great length, but women’s rights are at the forefront. Health care, affordable education, aged care, the slow death of middle-class America, the social need for art – these are some of The Gabriels’ favourite topics of discussion, and the intersection of these topics in family and politics is central to the plays.

So what we experience as we make three meals with the Gabriels is that we are one of the family. We recognise parts of ourselves in parts of them. We might not be blood relatives, but their worries are ours, and their laughter is echoed in our own throats. And Nelson, in his very persuasive and subtle way, prompts us to ask, “What can I do?”

The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family runs at Subiaco Arts Centre until 18 February. For tickets and more information, visit the PIAF website here.