Six years ago, American playwright Richard Nelson wrote The Apple Family Plays, a four-part cycle centred on a (small ‘l’) liberal American family living in his hometown of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, New York (population 7,548). Each play was set (and indeed premiered) on the night of a significant moment in American political life – the eve of the 2010 midterms; the 10th anniversary of 9/11 attacks; the 2012 election night; the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK – and the tetralogy went on to tour the world.

PIAF Artistic Director Wendy Martin, who had seen ‘The Apples’ called New York’s Public Theater the minute she landed the Perth job and asked if she could book it. We’re not doing them again, was the reply, but Richard is working on a new cycle set across the 2016 election year – would she be interested? Martin didn’t hesitate, and the programming of The Gabriels, a few months on from the final play’s election night premiere (and just announced as headed for London’s West End), is a genuine coup for Perth.

Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley and Meg Gibson

It’s a fascinating concept, and equally fascinating writing. Like the Apples, the Gabriels are a typical white, middle class family. Of course, there are doubtless plays to be written exploring the equivalent experience of an African American family in Atlanta, or a Latino family in Florida, but The Gabriels is what it is. Nelson has written what he knows – he even puts his own words at times into the mouth of the recently deceased playwright at the heart of the family dynamic – and the result is compelling, involving drama in the least demonstrative and most affecting sense of the word.

Part I (Hungry) is set the Friday after Super Tuesday. Mary Gabriel, a retired doctor and third wife of playwright Thomas Gabriel is still struggling to come to terms with his death the previous November after a long battle with Parkinsons. Thomas’ formidable mother, Patricia has returned to her own house for a visit, though she now lives in a care home. Thomas’ easy-going brother George, a piano teacher and craftsman, and George’s stolidly determined wife Hannah have come for dinner, as have Thomas’ smart and brittle sister Joyce (a New York-based costume designer) and his first wife Karin, an actress and now drama teacher.

Each is struggling in their own way, Mary with grief, Patricia with the onset of dementia, George and Hannah are short of cash with a son going to college. Neither Joyce nor Karin seems destined for success. The conversations that take place as they prepare dinner in Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West’s beautifully observed and fully functional kitchen are the meat and drink of Nelson’s drama. Trump is barely referenced – he was still “unthinkable” back then – but something is up. “Don’t you feel that something bad is about to happen?” remarks one character.

Jay O. Sanders and Roberta Maxwell

In Part II (What Did You Expect?) things have taken a turn for the worse. A bewildered Patricia, it turns out, has been scammed into re-mortgaging the house and no longer has enough savings to pay for her care home. Karin has rented a room from Mary to help go through Thomas’ effects in hope of finding something worth selling. Hannah and George are trying to flog the family Bechstein, though how George will earn money from music teaching once it’s gone is dubious. Joyce is taking catering jobs at Hillary Clinton fundraisers to make ends meet.

Part III (Women Of A Certain Age) is set on election day and like the cast, the audience at the premiere would have emerged to discover that contrary to many of their hopes and expectations Clinton had lost to Trump. By now, Patricia has suffered a stroke and is being forced to sell the house. George and Hannah’s son has voted for the first time but feels his parents should have fought harder to save the family home. Karin is planning a one woman play about Hillary. Mary needs to go back to work but has found her doctor’s license has expired. Regarding Trump, there’s a sense of foreboding in the air (“Everyone I know is scared”).

What is perhaps surprising about these plays at first sight is how little the family discuss politics as such. For the Gabriels, it’s the little rituals of family life that matter, exemplified by how they set the kitchen at the start of each play. It is the issues that matter to ordinary people that Nelson wants to explore. How do we pay for health care? With rich ‘out-of-towners’ buying up our properties, why can’t we afford to live in our own communities any more? When did the banks stop paying interest to savers? The communal activity of cooking a meal is the enabler, a special ‘family’ time at which such matters can naturally come to the fore at an unforced pace. It’s all real – you can smell the onions frying – and put across with a particularly magical naturalism inhabiting every line, gesture and chopped pimento.

Amy Warren, Lynn Hawley and Jay O. Sanders

When politics does rear its head, it’s the perceived downward spiral of the last half-century that is as important to these people as what is on the daily news. Patricia may never have voted for Eleanor Roosevelt (who of course never stood for office), as she claims, but this clan of determined women share a binding faith in a first female president that stretches back to the1940s. The family has voted Carter, Clinton, Gore and Obama – Trump clearly hasn’t a skerrick of a chance here – but we sense that the shine has faded from the inspirational 21-year-old Hillary Rodham and her philandering spouse to the point of desperation (“Please be human, Hillary”).

Much of the writing is heart-warmingly gentle and brilliantly observed. There’s plenty of humour – no spoilers, but how to measure two serves of pasta is a cause for much hilarity, as is a philosophical discourse on the impact of a single act of fellatio in the Oval Office – but these are the special sort of jokes all families share. That we are invited in, we feel, is a privilege. Over six hours of theatre, these relationships are richly explored: mother-daughter, siblings, in-laws versus blood-relations. Joyce, who has never had children and is probably gay, has marvellously prickly interactions with her mother (who, it turns out, has the odd skeleton in the family closet). Karin – whose motives everyone else seems to distrust and discuss as soon as she leaves the room – clings to Mary in a complex symbiosis.

The acting is remarkable. A phalanx of rifle mics hang over the set allowing the actors to speak in normal voices while we seemingly listen in. At the heart of the three plays, and of this production, is Maryann Plunkett (who was also a key part of The Apple Family Plays). There’s a quiet honesty in her portrayal of the capable, yet grieving Mary that demands to be seen. She’s well-matched by Lynn Hawley’s stern-jawed, Hannah, resentful of the increasing influx of monied weekenders, and Amy Warren’s spiky, tight-lipped Joyce, a bundle of emotional issues, yet determined to go her own way and never ask for help. Roberta Maxwell makes a formidable Patricia, floundering and vulnerable at times, yet still able to land an emotional body blow with her special brand of dry humour. Meg Gibson captures the loneliness of the outsider Karin through a sequence of perfectly observed silences. The only man in the cast, Jay O. Sanders gives a friendly, big-hearted performance as the gentle giant George.

Maryann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Amy Warren and Jay O. Sanders

“My advice is always to write, to write what really matters. I ask my students two questions: Why did you write it? And should I watch it? People ask about structure, form, character development, and I’m not even sure what all of that means. Try not to second guess yourself. Form will come if you focus on what you want to say with truth and honesty. Structure is the hand that holds up what you want to say.” Nelson wrote that some years ago, though in the play the words are attributed to Thomas Gabriel. Emerging after eight hours with the Gabriels, the answer to the first question is clearly “because it matters.” The answer to the second is a resounding “Yes!” The Gabriels will stay with you long after you leave the theatre (and hopefully long after Donald Trump has been impeached and put behind us). Do see it.

The Gabriels is at Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth until February 18


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