GLOUCESTER — A New York lawyer, gathered for a boozy annual tribute to three friends and office mates who perished in the September 11 attacks, has a blasphemous thought: “Haven’t we done this enough? Can we stop now?”
As recounted later by actor Bill Mootos in the remarkable production of Richard Nelson’s “Sweet and Sad” in its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage Company, it’s the frustrated but ultimately vulnerable experience of a man reckoning with ghosts.
Presence and absence, remembering and forgetting — these themes hover in and around the play, thoughtfully considered more by posing questions than by answering them.
Set on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the play is the second in the four-part Apple Family Plays series currently being staged, with the same cast, in a collaboration between Gloucester Stage and Stoneham Theatre. (Stoneham presented “That Hopey Changey Thing” this year, and the third and fourth entries are scheduled for productions next year.)
Director Weylin Symes, the producing artistic director at Stoneham, does a masterful job here. The densely packed one-act runs almost two hours, and is very much a full meal — for its characters and the audience alike. Rendered here in a production with great sensitivity and awareness, the mixture of social relevance, deeply personal stakes, and thoughtful questioning is more or less why we go to the theater.
A cast of six portrays four adult siblings, their uncle, and one sister’s boyfriend. They interact with the complicated dynamics recognizable to any family, communicating with glances, body language and, perhaps mostly, with what is not said. Each actor here has found great depth and richness in Nelson’s dialogue, so much of which is meant to be approached from a sly angle rather than head-on.
In these plays, the playwright aims to depict how historical events of great moment manifest — or don’t — in the lives of ordinary people, folks who may be quick to cite the merits of Elizabeth Warren over dinner (as they do here, in a laugh-grabbing moment) but ultimately must navigate triumphs and tragedies that hit much closer to home.
“Sweet and Sad” concerns the Apple family, who are gathered at the Hudson Valley home of Barbara (Karen MacDonald), one of three sisters. Their brother, Richard (rendered by Mootos with a touch of well-intentioned bullishness), is the lawyer, one whose recent transition from the public sector to a private firm serving high-powered Wall Street clients has left him literally unable to see straight. Marian, imbued by Sarah Newhouse with a wounded but brittle mousiness, is living with Barbara after suffering a devastating personal tragedy.
Barbara is a control freak with a tendency to patronize, but MacDonald’s performance reveals the depth of emotional intelligence she harbors beneath the surface. Jane (Laura Latreille) is the most politically aware of the bunch but the most likely to miss the emotional subtext in the air; twice, she pantomimes an act of violence, and each time the audience senses its implications more than does the character. Taking a textural cue, Joel Colodner plays their uncle Benjamin — a one-time actor who is experiencing profound memory loss due to an unnamed ailment — with a Zen passivity seemingly grounded not in surrender but acceptance.
At one point, Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (a very fine Paul Melendy), shares a story about once feeling the unsettling touch of an apparition. Later, Jane declares that “some things are better to forget.” Though the playwright hits a false note by tossing in a pat gesture of closure for one character, this production ends with a beautiful and poetic sequence. Even if we shape the past by how we choose to remember it, the play suggests, sometimes it’s a thing’s absence that sings with the most urgent voice.