Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family
Kennedy Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Maryann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Amy Warren,
and Jay O. Sanders

Photo by Joan Marcus
Playwright Richard Nelson sets up microcosms that allow the joys and difficulties of an individual family on a particular day to represent the larger changes in society. In his three-play cycle, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Nelson uses a succession of theatrical brushstrokes to create a deeply affecting portrait of family members at a time of uncertainty for themselves and their country.

Nelson also directs this exquisite production, which began at New York's Public Theater with the same cast before coming to the upstairs Theater Lab at Washington's Kennedy Center. As the plays act as three parts of a whole, it's difficult to consider how well each part would stand on its own. (The plays can be seen on three successive nights or in a single day on weekends.)

Nelson previously created The Apple Family Plays, a four-play cycle following a different family through the years of Barack Obama's presidency. The Gabriels is set in the same town as the earlier cycle—Rhinebeck, New York, 100 miles north of New York City—and covers three important moments during the 2016 presidential election, written before anyone knew the outcome.

Like the Apples, the members of the Gabriel family are coping with aging, mortality, financial concerns, and the disagreements that naturally arise over the years and decades. One brother, playwright Thomas Gabriel, died the previous year, and much of the action comes from the sorting of memories and the question of what to keep, what to sell, and what to discard.

Each of the three plays revolves around the preparation of a meal; scenic designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West have conjured up a rustic kitchen from tables, chairs, and practical appliances (the water actually boils on the stove) that seem to float in space on the bare stage. Hungry takes place shortly after the Super Tuesday primaries in March; What Did You Expect? is set in mid-September, during the presidential campaign; and Women of a Certain Age takes place in the early evening of Election Day.

Out of a powerful six-actor ensemble, Maryann Plunkett is the anchor as Mary, Thomas' widow (the last of his three wives) and a retired doctor, taking deliberate steps forward in her life alone. To the surprise of Thomas' brother George (Jay O. Sanders), sister-in-law Hannah (Lynn Hawley), and sister Joyce (Amy Warren), Mary has invited Thomas' first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) to help sort through Thomas' papers. (Both Mary and Karin hate Thomas' second wife, who doesn't appear.) Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), mother of Thomas, George, and Joyce, is in declining health and money is becoming an issue.

Nelson's genius is how he weaves the social and political issues into the conversation, allowing every topic to take on an unexpected subtext. Questions of trust, uneasiness ("Don't you feel like something bad is about to happen?"), what people can believe, what moments cause irreversible changes in life—it's all laid out without preachiness and with a generous amount of humor.

Kennedy Center
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family
Play 1: Hungry
Play 2: What Did You Expect?
Play 3: Women of a Certain Age

January 3 - January 22, 2017
The Public Theater production
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Thomas Gabriel died the previous November
Mary Gabriel, Thomas' third wife, a retired doctor: Maryann Plunkett
Patricia Gabriel, Thomas' mother: Roberta Maxwell
George Gabriel, Thomas' brother, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker: Jay O. Sanders
Hannah Gabriel, George's wife, Thomas' sister-in-law, works for a caterer: Lynn Hawley
Joyce Gabriel, Thomas' sister, an assistant, and later associate, costume designer: Amy Warren
Karin Gabriel, Thomas' first wife, an actress and teacher: Meg Gibson
Theater Lab, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC
Ticket Information: (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600 or

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