Sweet and Sad: Not so much a story as a place at the table.

The Apple family are entertaining again...and they may be trying to adopt you.


Marian (Maureen Porter) and Richard (Michael O’Connell) play grown-up siblings with believable nuance. In the scene pictured, Marian affectionately bumps her shoulder into Richard’s as if to say, “We fight, but we love.”

At Third Rail Rep‘s “Sweet and Sad,” we’ve just spent two straight hours watching the Apple family drink wine and eat potluck food as they tiptoe around each others’ taboo subjects (exes, children, salary), occasionally hitting nerves that trigger maturely-managed upsets. Somebody says the wrong thing, causing somebody else to leave the room and return when ready. Between these revelatory bursts of backstory, the family sporadically acknowledges the 10-year anniversary of 911. By curtain, a tear-jerking requiem briefly rises to a choral crescendo.

Now it’s time for the talkback. “Was the wine real?” someone asks. No, the prop-master vouches. Someone very vaguely asks the cast about their emotional process, and they generally agree that it varies. When they have time for one more, I must know: “How do you guys find this work’s narrative arc?”

“Sweet and Sad” is the second of a series of four contemporary dialogue dramas by Richard Nelson that follow one family, the Apples, through successive reunions over a number of years. It’s the immediate sequel to “That Hopey Changey Thing,” which Third Rail tackled last year, and they’ve got two more titles to go. Each play is pegged to a significant national event, respectively: Obama taking office, 911’s 10-year anniversary, the 2012 election, and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Given this context, I need to further specify my question:

“Is there a climax and a resolution within this particular play? And is there one within each play of this series? Or is a single plot arc spread out across the whole series? OR do we get climaxes and resolutions popping up at surprising times, rather than following the usual dramatic flow?”

“Richard Nelson doesn’t really seem to care about the narrative arc,” asserts actor Maureen Porter Rebecca Lingafelter. “It’s more of a tapestry…you just have to be present.” Her cohorts nod, but Isaac Lamb interprets it differently: “I think if you give yourself over to his particular style, you do find it…but it’s subtler, less apparent than you’re used to.” Bruce Burkhartsmeier has yet another take: “I expect a climax in the third play, and a resolution in the fourth one. I think at this point in the series, we’re still establishing.”

“You do?” someone remarks. “Yes,” he commits.

So even among the insiders, the jury’s out. These actors’ differing perspective within a shared framework mirrors the Apple family, who literally and figuratively come to the table from unique individual circumstances. Jane (Rebecca Lingafelter) is a recently-divorced aspiring writer with a manuscript in the can who’s dating Tim (Isaac Lamb), an aspiring actor reluctantly working as a waiter. Richard (Michael O’Connell), a former public defender, has—since 911—privatized his practice, catering to Wall Street. Marian (Maureen Porter) is a teacher and mother, mourning her teen daughter’s recent suicide, and Barbara (Jacklyn Maddux) is a teacher who’s moved to the country to look after her Alzheimer’s-suffering uncle Benjamin (Bruce Burkhartsmeier) and subtly support her sister Marian.

These personas sparked one talkback participant to ask, “Is this a representative sample?” hinting that characters’ circumstances may not differ ENOUGH. Hm…in truth, the scene is a bit “NPR,” as a writer, two actors, two teachers, and one lawyer convene around an Ethan Allen dining room set in a spacious home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. within earshot of a church carillon. Jane is vegetarian and catered to. All nod to a few key points: religion is silly, Elizabeth Warren is wonderful, elections are meaningless, real estate controls everything in New York City, found journals from the twin tower fallout are “fascinating.” Though Jane barbs at her brother Richard that he’s “started watching FOX and hating teachers,” he never brings that voice to the table. So are the Apples Everymen?

No, and they don’t have to be, the cast retorted pretty quickly to the question. Since when did that matter in theater? In most plays, a personal or subcultural story unfurls its broader truths like ropes that the audience can grab onto. But Nelson reverses that conceit, taking a universally (or at least nationally) shared experience that we already grasp and tying it into the microcosm of a few character’s personal lives. As we follow our own 911 experience into the Apple Family’s living room, it’s somehow more natural to ask whether these characters should collectively represent the nation’s reaction to the 911 tragedy, rather than just one sociopolitical niche. As the New York Times observed of “Hopey Changey”: “these forays never develop into serious matters of contention or revelation,” probably because the Apple family members’ beliefs are more or less on the same page.

Still, the case could be made that they’re differing archetypes: Benjamin the forgetter; Marian the sensitive retreater, Jane the bitter striver; Tim the eternal optimist; Barbara the opter-out; Richard the self-defensive turncoat.

When I ran into Maureen Porter at a coffeeshop a few months back, she mentioned her excitement about returning to the Apple saga, even saying something like, “it’s dear to me.” On stage, the chance to re-inhabit a character from one season to the next is a rare one. If you’re lucky, you may reprise a beloved role and play the same storyline in the same tone…but usually only TV thesps get to reinhabit a familiar character to play out new plot developments in successive scripts. Veteran actors all, the Sweet & Sad cast found surprises in this process:

“Initially for Hopey/Changey, I’d crafted a backstory for my character, actually knowing very little about her,” notes Jacklyn Maddux. “But as we’ve moved on to this show, and I’ve read ahead to the NEXT script, into the character’s future…I was surprised to learn that the things I’d intuitively felt about Barbara were very close to what she ended up being.”

“I read ahead, and then I had to stop myself,” confesses Bruce Burkhartsmeier. “I don’t want to know too much about what’s going to happen to me.”

“I think there’s an extra richness, added layers, when you come to this play having also experienced Hopey/Changey,” Isaac Lamb admits.

Why does Nelson play fast and loose with narrative structure? Because he’s not telling a story, per se, but building a sense of relationship and shared history between actors, characters, and audience. Will the Apples feel like family to you? That depends where you’re coming from. But as with any family, there’s a sense of obligation and implied reward in simply showing up at all the get-togethers.


A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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3 Responses.

  1. Bob Hicks says:

    Terrific piece, Anne. I keep thinking about this play, and the story Nelson’s building. Looking forward to Chapter 3.

    So much is rippling beneath the surface. The idea of a great man who’s simply lost the ability to remember haunts the thing at least as much as the unseen child who’s simply disappeared. Bruce’s character, Benjamin, seems a stand-in for the America of the early 21st century, lost in trauma and grinding wars and a massive transfer of wealth and the bald buying and selling of the body politic. We know something crucial has disappeared, but we’re distracted, and we can’t seem to recall for certain exactly what it is. Michael’s jaundiced onetime crusader, turned off by petty corruptions on every side, stands in for the so-called best and brightest, giving in with a shrug and just going for the money like everyone else. And Maureen, as his sister Marian, is the quietly walking wounded, undone by events but feeling her way back, perhaps, to a semblance of capability.
    What’s remarkable about Nelson’s project is that, in spite of the symbolism, what really grips the audience is the lives and emotions of these six closely related people: They make us care very much what happens to them. They’re people first, symbols only afterwards. What’s also remarkable is that so much important stuff occurs in such a quiet, almost elegiacal, way.

  2. Maureen Porter says:

    Hello Oregon Arts Watch Folks,
    Thank you all for taking time to consider our work on Sweet & Sad. I just wanted to make one slight correction for the record. It was actually my amazing and thoughtful colleague Rebecca Lingafelter who made the comment at the talk back about narrative arc. What she actually said was that, within the context of these particular plays, she believed Richard Nelson was less “interested” in narrative arc than in creating texture. It is a small difference perhaps, but I think that the idea that Richard Nelson doesn’t “seem to care about the narrative arc” suggests something different. So I felt compelled to clarify. As a cast, we came to trust the amazing texture Nelson so carefully weaves of words and silences; family and love; grief and reconciliation; loss and memory. All of it. I have felt very honored to work on this beautifully personal and thoughtful text with such a generous and gifted group of people. Thank you again.

  3. Barry Johnson says:

    Thanks for the correction, Maureen, and the elaboration. As we work our way through Nelson’s quartet, it’s important to keep things straight!

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