The play is called Women Of A Certain Age, and we critics were invited to see it on the very evening it is set, November 8, 2016: Election Day. Although some of my colleagues were put out when Broadway producer Scott Rudin asked us to attend opening night of The Front Page, none of us has ever complained when asked to do so for the latest installment of Richard Nelson’s series about two unlike families living in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Rhinebeck, New York.
Each of the six plays, of which this was the final, is set in real time on its opening night. Truth to tell, I was nervous about how focused I could be, knowing that the quiet one-act unfolding there in the Public Theater’s third-floor LuEsther Hall would run right up against the first tallies of the voting for President. But these exquisitely intimate plays and these engaged audiences long ago began to feel like family, and Women Of A Certain Age, which left me in tears at the end, comforted me later on as dark night stretched gloomily into rain-swept day.
The Gabriels have, in fairly short order, seen their modest but comfortable lives come undone. The patriarch, Thomas, a once successful novelist and playwright, has been dead a year. His widow Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, has had to put the house up for sale; for the time being, she is in the kitchen preparing a meal with her frail mother-in-law Patricia (the flawless Roberta Maxwell), along with actress Karin (Meg Gibson), the first of Thomas’ three wives; and his siblings, Joyce (Amy Warren), an associate costume designer up from Brooklyn, and George (Jay O. Sanders), a carpenter and musician who lives nearby with his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), a caterer who recently began supplementing their income working as a maid in the nearby hotel.
They are all With Her and most have voted when the play opens, but if the politics of the present courses through their veins, partisanship is hardly on their minds. The evening begins with a ghost story — an unexpected prank by Patricia who, though disabled by a stroke, is sharp when she wants to be — and the kitchen air is suffused with ghosts, or at least memories. Cleaning out the house, they have discovered several treasures from the past, including Thomas’ violin, which George has taken to playing (offstage), a box with journals and manuscripts and another with recipes., They have determined to select the evening’s dishes from a ’50s Betty Crocker cookbook, despite the fact that canned peas are involved and no one eats Jell-O anymore.
Karin is preparing a performance later of Hillary Clinton’s valedictory address at Wellesley College and other HRC writings, scraps of which we hear before she goes off for a date she insists is not a date (and which proves not to be). One of the real ghosts is Patricia’s long-dead older sister, whom Joyce has deduced took her life at 19 upon discovering her husband was gay. The to-and-fro between daughter and mother is fraught with barely contained edge as Joyce prods Patricia with discomfiting fact before puling back just short of drawing blood; she clearly has neglected-child issues.
But the most weighing spirit is the house itself, which the family recognizes will soon be reduced to memories stored away in forgotten boxes. As with Nelson’s model Anton Chekhov, the big picture is in the details. It’s the accumulation of them in these mostly quiet moments that make Women Of A Certain Age so rich an exploration of identity, whether expressed in Hillary Rodham’s youthful celebration of self or Joyce’s insistence that the story of her dead aunt is important.
Nelson again is the masterful conductor of these amazing actors, anchored as always by Plunkett, whose face shimmers with the topography of a life balanced with joys and sorrows, and whose eyes are irresistible to a viewer. But I also want to note the ever-astonishing power of Roberta Maxwell, whose concentration never ever slackens, even when Patricia appears to be sleeping.
In the final seconds of the play, Mary hears George playing Schumann, on a piano that was sold and taken away weeks earlier, and thoughtfully surveys the kitchen before heading into the dining room to join the others. It’s a moment of incalculable intimacy, haunting and deeply sad. Not a word needed to be spoken.