From their first installment, Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays have punctuated scenes with the same theatrical effect: a soft fade to black and an ‘exhale’ sound effect, the combination suggesting a mournful release of lifeforce. The effect does not specifically indicate death, but it keeps its specter in a room that Nelson is filling with life.
In the lead-up to Wednesday evening’s livestream of his newest play, What Do We Need To Talk About?, I had wondered, in passing, how Nelson would go without his signature exhale. I’m not sure why I assumed a single audio effect and a slow fade would not be technically feasible. (Best to keep expectations low, I suppose.) Thank god, there it remained, the mournful release of breath carrying us from one distinct moment into the next.
Of course that exhale had to stay, because the act of a single breath carries even greater meaning now. We took for granted our own breath, our mother’s breath, our grandfather’s breath. And we took for granted the collective breath of an audience, sitting together and fully (or not so fully, depending on the audience) living in a world outside of our own. For all the life of Nelson’s family plays, death was always lurking in the darkened wings, or hovering above amidst those dangling microphones.
This time around there are no darkened wings, and no dangling microphones. The Apple siblings Richard, Barbara, Marian and Jane are chatting on Zoom, along with Jane’s partner Tim. Barbara has just returned from hospital following a scary experience with the virus; Tim is isolating from Jane with minor symptoms.
On the surface, the style of Nelson’s family plays seems an easy transfer to online theater: it’s just people sitting around in a single room and talking. A rewatch of Regular Singing reminded me how untrue that is. So much of the care and subtlety of Nelson’s writing lives outside of his dialogue.
As with most any family, the Apples express truth with a significant glance here, a shared silence there, and a mood in the room that isn’t put into words. When these plays were staged in the Anspacher, Nelson’s exacting direction would let us in on those feelings without them needing to be spoken. A glance spoke a thousand words.
Online What Do We Need To Talk About? finds that energy only as much as could be expected. Occasionally an actor would pause and wait to be interrupted, or the group would take turns speaking in ways that felt off. “Hey, Richard wouldn’t have waited for Marian to finish that sentence,” I thought to myself – “He would have talked right over her!” The insanely specific mood conjured in Nelson’s stagings could only be captured so much in this format where pace is hard to control.
Still, it was pretty damn close. Who knew a Zoom call could be so atmospheric? In one section the family takes turns telling stories to distract, and I felt engrossed in every tale. “As you told that story, Jane, I did not once think about a pandemic!” exclaimed Barbara, and it was true. The futzing over food and drink needs, a constant flurry in Nelson’s stagings, remained here – family members kept coming and going to ensure they clutched the right food or drink.
Most importantly, when the family sat in a feeling together, we sat in it with them. Barbara’s time in the hospital stirs a memory of a poem Uncle Benjamin read at a local high school on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She plays a tape recording of Ben reading the poem, and as the family leans in to cherish every word, we do the same. Not only to understand why Barbara thought of this poem, which slowly becomes clear, but also to cherish every careful word, delivered so beautifully by Jon DeVries. Robbed of his usual technique for forcing us to lean way, way in, which was to lower the volume to a whisper, Nelson of course finds another way. And lean in we do.
As with all livestream theater, the actors are everything. Look – by rights none of these conference call readings should work. Yet, when performers in front of their laptops key in just as intently as they did on stage, attention must be paid.
Jay O’Sanders, Stephen Kunken, Laila Robins and Sally Murphy are tremendous, effortlessly slipping back into their Apple skin. And as always, the MVP is Maryann Plunkett. Even on a Zoom call, Nelson does not deprive Plunkett the traditional opening/closing moments of silence with Barbara, as she wordlessly bears an unbearable sadness.
Right now, that’s a big weight to put on Plunkett’s shoulders. So Nelson only adds to it, with a heartbreaking line Jane delivers just moments before, quoting her son’s girlfriend: “it feels like the world is ending just as we’re arriving.” Barbara is knocked out by the thought, and announces she’s tired. The family signs off one by one, with words of comfort and love. And then, as always, we are left with Barbara alone.
On stage, this final moment with Plunkett always felt sad, but never defeatist. “It’s those days together that remind us why we live,” Barbara says hopefully to the audience at the end of Regular Singing. “Or maybe it’s how. How we live.” Here though, Barbara has come close to a final exhale, and feels despair for the future. In Plunkett’s lost expression into the camera, Barbara’s light does not seem as strong as before. Of course, she will keep going. But that darkness just off-stage now stares her right in the face, and for a moment, it is too much. It is just too much.