The fourth and final of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays is deep, a little dark, and less mysterious than it is reflective.
“Regular Singing,” continuing through Sept. 25 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, begins and ends with a composition chosen for a funeral. It’s not a dirge, but rather a sprightly melody, religious in tone but also given to small embellishments that would be at home in a madrigal.
That’s not a bad way to characterize the play itself. The show rejoins the three sisters and one brother at the Apple family’s core with the siblings’ somewhat senile Uncle Ben (Joel Colodner) and a boyfriend, Tim (Paul Melendy), joining the brood as slight outliers. (Uncle Ben in particular is a handy character, allowing Nelson an excuse to slip in a minimum of explanatory asides as his loving nieces and nephew gently remind him of various bits of family history.)
As with the first three installments, “Regular Singing” brings the clan home to Rhinebeck, New York, and the house shared by two of the sisters, bossy Barbara (Karen MacDonald) and fussy divorcée Marian (Sarah Newhouse). While the first and third plays — “That Hopey Changey Thing” and “Sorry” — took place on election days, the 2010 midterms and the 2012 elections, the second play, “Sweet and Sad,” commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Making it four for four, Nelson sets “Regular Singing” on Nov. 22, 2013: the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
But it’s not the anniversary that serves as the primary reason for the gathering. There’s something much more idiosyncratic going on. Everyone has come together to observe a kind of living wake for Marian’s cancer-stricken ex-husband Adam, who lies in a terminal slumber in an upstairs bedroom, attended by his demanding mother. In fine dramatic style, Adam is never seen, but his is a constant presence — coloring and influencing the family’s interactions. (The mother is never seen either, but she’s heard occasionally, faintly, on a baby monitor.)
There are other family issues at work too, including brother Richard (Bill Mootos), now single, having relocated to the state capital of Albany where he works with the governor’s office. His many stories about Andrew Cuomo, various power players and the city itself carry a ring (or a rasp) of forced enthusiasm. Obviously he's unhappy, and sisters Barbara and Marian leap on the first opportunity they get to interrogate the third sister, Jane (Laura Latreille), who recently spent a week in Albany with Richard, as to the details of his life. What's his apartment like? How’s his state of mind?
Jane’s boyfriend Tim looks on in dazed male confusion at this frenzy of intelligence sharing. Like Ben, Tim is an actor; he's good at interpreting the stuff of life, and he does so often with colorful aplomb and entertaining results. When it comes to parsing the lifetime of in-jokes and irritations of Jane and her siblings, however, Tim is content to leave them to it, especially when the moment arrives for the sisters to cajole (or bully) Richard to reestablish his family ties.
Those ties are the binding element here. This is a work that’s all about texture, musing about meaning and significance while deeper thinking (and deeper dramatic tensions) exert a constant pull. This is also a talky play, but the cast (under the direction of Weylin Symes) approach the material with a naturalistic style that’s homey and inviting.
The motif that crops up again and again is the repetitive nature of communal experience, including the human talent for dissent. Mortality works hand in hand with this theme, and the idea that an individual is not entirely his or her own person, but belongs to a larger circle — family, faith, nation — is a soothing counterpoint to the play’s foundational concerns of death and dying. Life and its weight are summarized by Nelson’s pen like a bill that's been waiting for payment throughout the decades. (Such a bill, a relic from the 1800s, is referenced here.) But once you settle up accounts, what's left?
Nelson massages a host of associated questions into the script. If, as one character speculates, time is like an ice rink, with life’s course bringing one around time after time to the same points of reference, then on a larger level we’re not simply remembering those who came before but re-enacting their concerns and conflicts in new ways. The dark worry underneath Nelson’s insights is that we also tend to rehearse our own coming catastrophes, and it’s a timely concern given that in this election year there’s been a particularly acute sense of crisis.
Much of this crystallizes well after you leave the theater. The thing about this play is that it's all about texture, which is far more overt here than meaning. An attempt to summarize its content would be akin to trying to catch the wind with a butterfly net. The play has structure, but the cast’s performances — their energy, if you will — give it shape, and the shape they’ve sculpted is a good fit for the material. You feel yourself being swept along through a running time of nearly two hours (with no intermission), and even if every verbal sidetrack doesn’t overtly feed back to central themes of mortality, family and communal memory, that’s fine: You get there in the end.
What’s evident from the start is that “Regular Singing” is as concerned with the political as with the personal, which is true of all the Apple Family Plays. Politics might be a less obvious element in this case (no election here, no 9/11 anniversary), but at the same time, it might be more the case here than ever that A isn’t just for Apple, it also stands for America.
“Regular Singing” continues through Sept. 25 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. WBUR’s Louise Kennedy, along with Boston University’s Tobe Berkovitz and John Carroll, will lead a special symposium, “Dates of Infamy: Defining Ourselves through Significant National Events,” after the 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Sept. 11. For details about other post-show events, more information, and tickets, visit the New Repertory Theatre’s website.