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The Gabriels: Election year in the life of one family (Perth Festival)

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Usually marathon theatre events like The Gabriels — experienced over the course of eight hours, with two long breaks — have more than a touch of the epic about them. But Richard Nelson’s three-play cycle, set around the kitchen table of a rather ordinary American family in Rhinebeck, New York, is unusually intimate.

The world’s most closely-dissected and controversial election is taking place in their country, but the Gabriels’ most immediate concerns are those things that tend to keep most of us up at night: how do we deal with the death of a loved one? How do we ensure our finances are solid enough to afford us some dignity as we reach our later years? And how do we maintain peaceful and loving relationships with our family when there are small tensions and niggles constantly creeping in?

Each of the three plays takes place on a significant evening in the US election, culminating on election night. All three premiered on the night on which they were set — Hungry on March 4, What Did You Expect? on September 16, and Women of a Certain Age on November 8 — at New York’s Public Theater. Earlier this year, they were combined into a three-play marathon, first performed by the original cast in Washington, and now playing a short Australian season at Perth International Arts Festival.

Despite the plays’ timings and setting, there’s little discussion of the election or bigger political ideas. The family are all committed Democrats, and although they express some concerns about Hillary Clinton, it’s clear where their allegiances will eventually lie.

The plays were written before the election, but Donald Trump is rarely addressed — maybe the Gabriels just don’t see him as a credible threat, or maybe the horror of a Trump Presidency is just too much to even acknowledge. In fact, it’s not until the third play that he’s actually addressed by name; up until then he’s only referred to in ominous terms as “him”.

What do they do if “he” wins? None of the family has any real answers to offer.

That’s not to say The Gabriels don’t chew the fat in a satisfying and engaging way: they’re the type of family who discuss ideas in a down-to-earth but sophisticated way, and you’re very happy to have a fly-on-the-wall view of their lives for a few hours.

And that’s exactly what The Gabriels provides. Each of the plays sees the family preparing food — ratatouille in the first, treats for a picnic in the second, and painted cookies in the third — while they come to grips with the year they’re all experiencing. There’s a gaping hole in this family when we first meet them, given that a pivotal member, successful playwright Thomas, has died a few months ago.

His third wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett) cared for him through his final years and is only just managing to keep it together, while Thomas’s mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) soon throws up problems of her own. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) has also showed up to the dinner, although nobody can remember who invited her.

The food is all made from scratch (well, except for a packet-mix of hummus) live on stage. It means the audience can smell onions frying, a casserole baking, watch steam rising from fry pans, and hear the sound of pots of water bubbling away.

“there’s something epic about the mere act of living through a year with family.”

It’s this absolute commitment to realism and touches of naturalism that’s the most impressive and engrossing thing about this marathon, directed by Nelson himself. Across more than five hours of stage time, there’s not a line of dialogue that doesn’t ring true, or a movement that doesn’t feel as though it emerged entirely naturally from the situation.

But within those strictures, Nelson manages to pose bigger questions about how we live, and how we see ourselves on stage and in culture. In fact, the third play begins with the line “who’s there?”, which a character later states is the greatest possible opening for a play (and also the opening of Hamlet).

This isn’t a debate play by any stretch of the imagination — the Gabriels barely argue and never raise their voices — but the ideas with which they gently grapple are undeniably political.

If the play has a political viewpoint, it’s never put into the mouths of any character, but rather emerges from the situation that the family finds itself in as it starts losing its grip on finances and property.

The performances are all finely observed, incredibly disciplined, and gorgeously un-stagey. To see this cast of six (Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren) performing in Australia is a rare treat.

There are microphones hanging around the kitchen which catch most of the conversation as it evolves, meaning the actors are always speaking as though they were speaking to a family member who were just a few metres away, never reaching out to the back row of the audience. There are still snatches of dialogue that you miss as a loud tap turns on or something on the stove starts to bubble over, but that just enhances the feeling that you’re part of this intimate gathering.

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By the time the ending of the final play creeps up, it becomes clear that there’s something epic about the mere act of living through a year with family. It’s difficult to know if you’ve learnt anything or gained any deeper understanding of the human condition from The Gabriels, but you can be certain that you’ve borne witness to something quite special.

The Gabriels is at Subiaco Arts Centre until February 18.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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