by Ben Brantley on October 28, 2019
In this delicately wrought portrait of a dying choreographer and her family, Richard Nelson’s play considers the redemptive powers of art in fractious times.
They’re speaking more softly in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck these days, as if a raised voice might upset a tenuous balance. Not that any of the previous seven (and wonderful) family dramas written by Nelson during the past nine years, all set in the Hudson River town of Rhinebeck, N.Y., have ever involved much shouting.
But his gentle, truly moving “The Michaels” — which opened at the Public Theater on Sunday, the night on which the play is set — feels pitched in an even lower key than its predecessors: “The Apple Family Plays,” a tetralogy, or the three works that make up “The Gabriels.” In those pieces, middle-class, economically anxious people, of literary and artistic bents, were apt to become heated and at least a little loud as they navigated the overlap between the state of their country and the state of their homes.
I spent election night in 2016 with the fictional Gabriels, an extended, left-leaning family on the verge of having to sell their home, and I couldn’t have asked for more sympathetic and soulful company. Like me, they had cast their votes for president of the United States in upstate New York earlier that day. Like me, they were awaiting the results with the fearful sense that whatever happened, an increasingly unmoored and conflicted society was unlikely to be righted overnight.
Three years have now passed, and you don’t need me to tell you about what has happened in this country during that time. Yet at a moment when you might have expected the air of Rhinebeck to be rent with cries of lamentation worthy of Sophocles, Nelson has cannily turned down the volume. The word “Trump,” with a capital T, occurs exactly twice in “The Michaels,” and those references are more or less glossed over, as if someone had passed gas at the dinner table.
Please note, though, that the full title of this play is “The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times.” Nelson knows that his characters and his audience are all too aware of the rancorous clamor of the world outside. He also understands that there are moments when people grow tired of arguing, of fretting, of trying to make sense of an irrational universe.
This is especially true when there is a crisis at home that demands delicacy. Hence the almost hushed tone of this production, which is directed by Nelson, who makes expert use of his now standard arrangement of tiny suspended microphones, which allow performers to whisper and still be heard. (Scott Lehrer is the sound designer.)
I initially took this relative quiet to signify a state of depletion, perhaps even of surrender. Happily, I was wrong.
“The Michaels” is set in the house of a dying woman, Rose Michael (a perfectly cast Brenda Wehle), a modern dance choreographer with ovarian cancer. Rose has a new partner, Kate Harris (Maryann Plunkett), a retired history teacher.
Though Rose’s art is celebrated for its exaltation of women’s everyday chores (sweeping, mopping, washing), she herself might be described as domestically challenged. It thus falls to Kate to prepare the Sunday night meal for their visitors, who have connections both personal and professional to Rose.
These include two of Rose’s former dancers, now middle-aged: Sally Michael (Rita Wolf) and Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris). Sally is married to David Michael (Jay O. Sanders), an arts manager and producer who is also Rose’s former husband.
There are also two other, younger women there that night: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), the daughter of Rose and David, and her cousin, May Smith (Matilda Sakamoto). They are helping to prepare a tribute to Rose’s career, in which they will perform.
Before the evening is over, they will dance for Rose, a performance devised from some of her earlier work. (The resonant, spontaneous-seeming choreography is based on that of the modern dance veteran Dan Wagoner, whose translation to the stage here was overseen by Sara Rudner and Gwyneth Jones.) When they do, the odds are that they will make you cry.
There is little forward-moving plot in “The Michaels,” even by the uneventful standards of the other Rhinebeck plays. This latest addition shares with its predecessors an emphasis on the preparation of food, in what appears to be a fully functional kitchen.
And like other Rhinebeck plays, this one begins with the cast members bringing order to Jason Ardizzone-West’s set (lighted by the brilliant Jennifer Tipton). They arrange chairs and tables, unfold rugs, distribute the dishes and foodstuffs required to prepare and serve a meal. Nelson is once again asking us to draw the parallel between what goes into setting up a play and the daily business of setting up a life.
Though Nelson nearly always tips a reverential hat to the performing arts in his plays, the sense of art as both a mirror to and ordering force in life is paramount here. The first words spoken (by David) are about being backstage with the cast at a play he was working on, and the sense of its being a charged, almost mystical space — like that, presumably, from which the cast of “The Michaels” has just emerged.
The characters reminisce about working with Rose, and about the relationships that developed and transformed and ended during those collaborations. They go through boxes of old journals and photos, trying to summon what was before it fades from recollection altogether.
And while the others speak of Rose’s dogged silence on her illness, it appears she has already planned her own funeral. In the midst of life we are in death, and vice versa. Dance comes to seem like a tragically ephemeral form — and, paradoxically, one capable of endless regeneration.
Nelson lets such heady themes grow organically, by stealth, from an ensemble that never, ever seems to be acting. (The invaluable Ms. Plunkett, the show’s beating heart, and Mr. Sanders have appeared in all the previous Rhinebeck plays.) Even the dance here, performed in the cluttered kitchen, feels like a natural and necessary extension of the lives on display.
Though it takes place in real time, “The Michaels” is punctuated by brief blackouts, during which we hear what sounds like someone hungrily inhaling. Or is it exhaling? It is the breath of life, in any case, on the edge of extinction, and of renewal, too. “The Michaels” is as hopeful as it is heartbreaking.