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How Do You Talk to Your Family in an Election Year?

Date: Sep 14, 2016

Richard Nelson takes another look at the Gabriels


Playwright Richard Nelson wants you to know that his three-play cycle The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is less about politics than kinship. Specifically, it's about the connections among the Gabriels, a middle-class clan in Rhinebeck, N.Y., which has turned into a trendy bedroom community.

The family has returned for the cycle's middle installment, What Did You Expect?, which is now at The Public Theater.

"If you saw the first play [Hungry, which was set and opened around the 2016 primary's Super Tuesday], the plays are not about political arguments," says Nelson, who also directs the three naturalistic works where conversations aren't so much presented as overheard. "It's not about one side winning over another. There's not even any 'sides.' It's a story about a family, and we tell the story in real time in the sense that it opens on the day it is set."

To that end, What Did You Expect? takes place on Friday, September 16, 2016, which is also the day it officially opens. (Preview performances, however, are underway.)

"We catch up on this family on three different times during the course of one year in which they – like you and I – are sharing the experience of an election year," Nelson says. "But they're also, perhaps even more importantly, dealing with their own lives."

The plays are set in the house in which the characters grew up. In What Did You Expect?, according to The Public, "history (both theirs and our country's), money, politics, family, art, and culture are chopped up and mixed together, while a meal is made around the kitchen table."

That distance from debates and poll numbers is intentional. "I'm going to guess that there are things in your life – certainly in mine – that are more important than the election," says Nelson. "That doesn't mean the election isn't there, but that it's a thread that we weave through our lives as opposed to the reason of our lives."

Nelson wrote about another Rhinebeck family in a quartet of pieces produced between 2010 and 2013. Collectively called The Apple Family Plays, those works also used historic and political events – the 2010 election, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Obama's re-election, and the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination – as a backdrop.


But comparing the two cycles is like comparing Apples and oranges. Though the upstate locale (and some cast members) are the same, the families are unto themselves.

For instance, the Gabriels are of, not moving to, Rhinebeck. "In the Apple plays, one by one people move to Rhinebeck, which isn't their ancestral home," Nelson notes. "By the end [of the cycle] everyone is living there, or considering living there."

In other words, it's about seeking and finding a home. But the Gabriels go back several generations, which is a different experience. As their town changes around them, with the influx of newcomers, the clan reflects the feelings of estrangement which are resonating in this election. "It's trying to hang onto one's home and place," Nelson says. "One's past and one's beliefs are all involved in this series."

Of course, even if these themes do seem especially relevant, Nelson notes that he was working on the scripts well before the current presidential nominees were chosen. "If it resonates to the present [campaign] that's great, but I think it could apply in any election year, don't you think?

"My characters are of a certain age, so they may have expected things out of their lives. I think there are many different ways that comes into play in the play, and it's referenced several times in the play as well. So it's not any one thing. It's that general sense of expectation that we, of a certain age, are certainly looking at and questioning."

That said, Nelson intends to makes revisions all the way to the opening night of the cycle's third play, Women of a Certain Age, which officially opens on November 8 (election day). He expects the changes will be subtle, but palpable.

"My characters aren't isolated," he explains. "They live in this world, this country, this society. So if you take an hour-and-a-half of your life with your family and friends, the election will probably creep in for a few minutes during that period in some kind of way. But I doubt it will completely dominate who you are and what you are talking about. But the world outside sometimes allows us to articulate our inner self."


Note: All three plays in the cycle will run in repertory on Dec. 10, 11, 14, 17 and 18.

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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Jay O. Sanders and Lynn Hawley

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