Death is inescapable in Regular Singing, the much-anticipated fourth and final entry in Richard Nelson’s Apple Family: Scenes From Life in the Country series, now receiving its world premiere at Off Broadway’s Public Theater. This is likely the last time we’ll sit down with the Apple family of Rhinebeck, N.Y., including uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), sisters Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Marian (Laila Robins), and Jane (Sally Murphy), and brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), plus Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken). The occasion is, like the previous plays, an evening of historical significance (and the date of the play’s premiere): Nov. 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
For those of us who have been following the Apples through four years and four plays, Regular Singing is a farewell of sorts, tinged with melancholy and sorrow. Not only does Marian have visions of her 20-year-old daughter, who committed suicide a few years ago, but she has also taken up the care of her cancer-stricken ex-husband, Adam. His unseen presence is a bit contrived, a device to bring the characters around the dining room table. Admittedly, the preparations for Adam’s imminent funeral give rise to some positively shattering songs, psalms, poems, and monologues. (This is a liberal, literary family, so naturally there will be Euripides and Chekhov at the service.) But hearing his name so often — and hearing his mother’s voice through a baby monitor — feels like an intrusion.
Perhaps because the Kennedy assassination seems so remote to many theatergoers — “Today doesn’t seem to be about anything,” shrugs Richard — Nelson perhaps felt he needed another way to connect the Apples to the audience. The previous plays were much more rooted in current (or relatively recent) events: That Hopey Changey Thing (2010) was set on the eve of New York’s gubernatorial election; Sweet and Sad (2011), on the 10th anniversary of 9/11; Sorry (2012), on the night before Obama’s reelection. (All four shows are running in repertory at the Public through Dec. 15.) In those plays, audiences were bound together simply by virtue of being New Yorkers, U.S. residents, and voters. Regular Singing strives for a more personal connection: Even if we’re too young to remember President Kennedy, who hasn’t watched a loved one slip away before our eyes?
Still, Regular Singing is an artful, delicately shaded drama that, both on its own and along with the other Apple plays, cements Nelson’s place in American theatrical history. If you have the means and opportunity to see all four — either now at the Public with this unparalleled cast or on another occasion at a regional theater near you — I promise you won’t regret it. Like any of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays or Horton Foote’s Orphans cycle, each was written to stand alone. If you must restrict yourself to just one, I’d recommend Sweet and Sad or Sorry. But you can’t go wrong with any of them. An evening with the Apples will be cherished for a lifetime. B+
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)