For theater makers and theatergoers it’s been the worst of times and, only occasionally, the best of times. The houses are shuttered, as are the multitude of businesses directly and indirectly dependent on their operation. For many, the creative process, from inception to opening night, has been halted, with no end in sight as Covid-19 cuts its murderous path through the populace.
And yet the flow of creativity is not so easily stanched. Theater lovers find some solace in viewing shows not otherwise meant for translation from three dimensions to two. (I’m a fickle fan of theater-on-TV, never wishing to be weaned from the live experience.) Perhaps more importantly, some theater makers are bending their creative impulses to telling stories that take advantage of the enforced intimacy a camera imposes on the proceedings, even if the absence of an audience makes every show a ghost story.
Intimacy is a hallmark of the plays Richard Nelson has spent the last decade writing about three families in Rhinebeck, a mellowish Hudson Valley town about halfway between New York City and, 140 miles upriver, the state capital of Albany. The fictional Apple family has anchored the series; the Gabriels and the Michaels came later. No need to rehash their stories here, but speaking of ghosts, And So We Go Forth is introduced by Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a beloved character from the first Apple play, a retired actor fading in and out of dementia.
DeVries, seen alone at home in the Zoom frame, couldn’t be the more apt choice here. His task is to explain that the new play has been independently mounted as a fundraiser for the Actors Fund, which has been providing critical services to actors and theater-related professionals. And So We Move Forth is the second Apple family play presented during the pandemic. The earlier one was a fundraiser for the Public Theater, which produced all of the other Rhinebeck plays.
The plays unfold in the present, in real time and in four frames on whatever screen you’re viewing the show (the bigger the better). Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer in the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, about whom he fosters no illusions, is eating Indian takeout with his sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school English teacher, in her Rhinebeck home. Joining them from their nearby homes are sisters Marian (Laila Robins), also a teacher, and Jane (Sally Murphy), a magazine writer whose boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken), a local restaurant manager and aspiring actor, is dialing in from his ex-wife’s place in Brooklyn. (“I’m on the couch. She’s got a husband. Who’s here.”)
Coping with isolation during the pandemic, our concern with Big Issues (an unhinged president, the collapse of the economy, the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter following the murder of Floyd George) competes more each day with more modest obsessions, and it’s hard to know which is winning. Such conflict is the marrow of Nelson’s sensitive dramaturgy (and direction), and you either give into its diurnal urgings, as I do, or twiddle your thumbs waiting for a kind of action that never arrives.
What will come, as this incomparable cast of Apple family veterans beautifully navigates, is the eventual merging of the particular and the global, as unavoidable as the rising body count from the virus: Will Richard buy a new home in town and write his history of Rhinebeck? Will Jane allow Tim’s grown daughter and a friend to come live with them in cramped quarters? Will Marian find love with a new suitor?
But also: When to have sex with a new partner used to be the big deal, Jane notes; today it’s when to hold hands. Barbara and Richard share an email from a friend in California that ends with a game she and her husband play, posing questions with no answers, from “What kind of country should we have?” to “What have we become? What will happen? And will we understand anything more when it does?”
I haven’t mentioned how much gentle sibling humor suffuses the text. You’ll have to trust me on that. Through the end of August you can watch And So We Come Forth for free on YouTube here and also at www.theapplefamilyplays.com. And don’t forget to contribute at https://actorsfund.org.
Shortly after Covid-19 became the Big Brother in our lives, the Public had to shut down its gorgeous production of Coal Country, a collaboration between the docudramatist team of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (The Exonerated, Aftermath) and songwriter Steve Earle for their haunting play, drawn from interviews with the victims and survivors of a coal-mining disaster.
Blank (who also directs) and Jensen return with The Line, commissioned by the Public specifically for streaming and featuring the voices of New York City first-responders to the crisis. It’s a stunning accomplishment, nearly as unbearable to watch as it is impossible to ignore.
Seven first-rate actors take on the roles of David (Santino Fontana), an ICU nurse whose training as an actor helps him connect with the suddenly sick and dying; Vikram (Arjun Gupta), a doctor who can’t wrap his empathic mind around the country’s lack of preparedness and inability to launch into crisis mode from the outset; Oscar (John Ortiz), who transitioned from driver to EMT in order to be able to help more people; and Jennifer (Alison Pill), a first-year intern who finds herself jury-rigging equipment with duct tape to imitate the ventilators they don’t have (“We were definitely thrown into the deep end of the pool”).
There's also Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), a nurse with acute understanding of the racism that has made people of color not only the biggest category of Covid-19 sufferers, but also the most vulnerable responders because they’re the ones with the most direct contact with patients and medical trash; Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a paramedic whose tours in Afghanistan and Pakistan did nothing to prepare him for the extended trauma of treating the city’s Covid patients; and Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), an aide in an old folks’ residence who insists that every patient be treated with dignity even as the whole social construct around her disintegrates.
The verbatim interviews have been expertly interwoven to build to maximum impact, much like a Frederick Wiseman documentary. And the actors give their all to these roles, at least in part because they have the double virtues of truth and timeliness. The Line is spectacular, bringing us closer to the breath and experience of the coronavirus’s impact than anything else I’ve seen or read. Through August 4 you can watch it for free via both YouTube and The Public’s website.