Theater that memorializes world-changing events is often writ large, the scale conveying their significance even as smaller stories are developed within an expansive tale. Shakespeare’s histories come to mind, of course.
That, however, is not how Richard Nelson has chronicled the forces that have changed the world over the past dozen years or so. Through a series of 12 plays referred to as “The Rhinebeck Panorama,” Nelson has followed the fates of three families — the Apples, the Gabriels, and the Michaels — as they have tried to negotiate events swirling around them and the impact those have on their lives. Nothing monumental happens in these plays, and yet they are profoundly moving because of the characters and the intimacy of every interaction. As theater, these plays deliver an emotional, even cathartic experience as powerful as Henry V’s unexpected victory at Agincourt.
“What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad” is the final play set on September 8, 2021, and while it transports the family to Angers, France, Rhinebeck is not far away, emotionally or in reality. The family has gathered for a tribute to Rose Michael, matriarch of the family, who had been suffering from cancer but died of COVID. Rose was the founder of a famous “downtown” dance troupe, and the memorial was devised by her daughter, Lucy. Lucy had come to Angers for a short dance residency in 2019 (She appeared on a Zoom call from Angers in the first of the two plays about this family.) but ended up having to stay through the pandemic. The others who have come for the memorial and are gathered in the kitchen of Suzanne, a dancer with the company who now teachers in Angers, are Rose’s ex-husband, David, with current wife Sally; niece May; and former principal dancer Irenie. The only person not affiliated with the troupe who has come is Rose’s widow, Kate. They married later in life, and Kate devoted herself to lovingly caring for Rose, pouring herself into the relationship completely, but as much as she is loved and accepted by the family, she is still an outsider, an observer always tentative despite the intimacy of her marriage to Rose.
Kate, however, is not the only character who is struggling with loss. May is haunted by the idea that she gave Rose COVID. Lucy is trying to come to terms with her relationship with her mother and emerge as an artist in her own right. At the same time, she has to determine whether or not to sell her mother’s house. David and Sally are facing a harsh economic situation brought on by the pandemic, and some resolution hinges on Lucy’s agreement to let go of the house. In short, there are the myriad connections, concerns, emotions — expressed or suppressed — and uncertainty that characterize any family. There are moments of joy, as well, as Lucy shows part of the dances she is preparing for the tribute, along with May. As Irenie says, “I forgot everything else — everything — watching them dance,” adding the idea of art as healing to the layers of this piece.
That all of this works so beautifully is a tribute both to Nelson and his company. In a program note, Nelson writes that he tells his actors that the goal is “to be as opposed to do.” Watching this being is simply beautiful, and Nelson gets as close to pure naturalism on stage as any theater artist working today. The small audience is close to the action and feels very much in the kitchen with the characters. Moreover, the issues raised are close to home for all of us who have lived through the pandemic and the visceral humanity that comes with finally being together again in person.
The company is nothing short of brilliant, finding every nuance in every line, seemingly effortlessly. Rita Wolf as Sally, Matilda Sakamoto as May, and especially Haviland Morris as Irenie and Yvonne Woods as Suzanne, are blazingly present to the moments unfolding. Charlotte Bydwell as Lucy dances terrifically, even as she negotiates the uncertain territory of coming to terms with the loss of a parent. Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett have been in all twelve of the plays. They are extraordinary exponents of Nelson’s style. When Sanders thinks that Lucy may not agree to sell the house, the full impact of what that might mean to his future crosses his face, though he says nothing. Plunkett, too, fills even the smallest moment, whether it’s the upset of causing stress for Lucy or describing the unfairness of having to say goodbye to Rose through a nurse’s iPad, though she cannot bring herself to utter “goodbye.”
One trope of all the Rhinebeck plays is that the final moments belong to whichever character Plunkett is playing alone. Here, as she stands in the kitchen, she strains to see the past filled with dancers and joy as Suzanne has described, knowing that she could never capture that — and that the space is now empty.
This is a play about loss, the inevitable changes wrought by time and circumstance, and finding a way to go on, however haltingly. We may never know fully what happened, but we do go on, and sharing this reality with this family — transforming life into art — lets us know that whatever we went through all those months, we were not alone.
WHAT HAPPENED?: THE MICHAELS ABROAD | Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College | 68th between Lexington and Park | Tuesday-Sunday 7:30 p.m.; Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. (Some Thursday matinees.) through October 8 | $39.50 www.huntertheaterproject.org | 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission