NEW YORK — When Richard Nelson first sat down to write his Apple Family Plays, his celebrated cycle of four interconnected family dramas each set on major milestones in recent electoral and cultural history, he thought the currency of the plays and specificity of the references would damn them to a short shelf life. He figured that the cycle would end up being, at best, “disposable” snapshots of a moment in time or, at worst, obsolete relics.
“With the first one I wrote, I thought I’m going to be so specific and have references so of-the-moment that there will be a sell-by date on them,” he says recently over lunch in the second-floor lounge of New York’s Public Theater, where the Apple Family Plays premiered between 2010 and 2013.
Centered on the liberal-minded, middle-class Apple family of Rhinebeck, N.Y. (where Nelson has lived since 1983), those Chekhov-inspired plays wound up being much more durable than he ever imagined. “When we put them all together and produced them back-to-back here at the Public [in 2013], and then we toured them to Europe and did them on television [for PBS], I started to think maybe these are really more resonant than I first thought,” he says.
Watching the 7½-hour marathon of the play cycle during its European tour, Nelson realized that “the minutia [in the plays] gains more and more meaning over time. So the plays, as they go on, become more and more meaningful and what’s happening on stage becomes more profound. So I learned a lesson I should have learned years ago: the greater specificity, the greater the universality.”
In the Boston area, where the plays have been presented in succession since last year, the cycle comes to a close with the fourth installment, “Regular Singing,” at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Set in 2013 on the eve of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, the play runs through Sept. 25 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
The first two Apple Family Plays, “That Hopey Changey Thing,” set on the eve of the 2010 midterm election, and “Sweet and Sad,” which takes place on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, were produced as a collaboration between Stoneham Theatre and Gloucester Stage Company in 2015. Last spring, Stoneham produced the third play of the cycle, “Sorry,” set on Election Day in 2012. In each play, the political landscape and major national events are reflected through the domestic lens of this fractious but loving family.
Weylin Symes, the producing artistic director at Stoneham, has helmed all four plays, each of which takes place over the course of a single meal, and the six-member cast has remained the same. They include Karen MacDonald as high school teacher Barbara Apple, Bill Mootos as her big-shot lawyer brother, Richard, and Joel Colodner as their ailing Uncle Benjamin.
In “Regular Singing,” the opinionated Apple clan looks back on one of our great national tragedies while staring into the abyss of losing one of their own extended family members, sister Marian’s unseen ex-husband, Adam.
“The people in this play are dealing with loss, marriages breaking up, other members of their family needing health care, dying relatives,” Symes says in a phone interview. “This deeply personal stuff sits side by side with the politics. But the plays never let you forget that these are real people living real lives and that we’re not just talking about abstract issues.”
Nelson, 65, wrote each of the Apple Family Plays to take place in real time and to open on the date in which they were set. He made changes to the pieces throughout previews and up until the opening nights — inserting references to Hurricane Sandy and the tightening of the Obama-Romney race, for example, into “Sorry.”
With his new work, “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” which unfolds during the course of the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign, Nelson is once again writing and directing a sprawling play cycle that reflects the current political and cultural zeitgeist. The Gabriel plays center on a different clan from Rhinebeck, one of more modest means. In each play, the family gathers to prepare a meal in the kitchen, grapples with the recent loss of their patriarch, and takes stock of the roiling state of the nation and the gentrifying town where they were born and raised.
The first play of the trilogy, “Hungry,” premiered last March at the Public; the second installment will premiere this month; and the final one, “Women of a Certain Age,” will open on Election Night, Nov. 8, as the family awaits the results of the Clinton-Trump presidential showdown.
The challenge of writing plays so of-the-moment, set against a backdrop of real American milestones or events that haven’t yet occurred, Nelson says, “is that you don’t really know how your characters are feeling until the actual day and time of when the play opens. So you’re always sketching, guessing, and then finishing at the last minute.”
The Apple Family Plays were inspired by the dog days of the Obama era, when the hope-and-change optimism of his 2008 victory was fading and the country seemed as polarized as ever. As the 2010 midterm elections approached, Nelson was not hearing the kinds of conversations that he was having with friends reflected in the morning paper, in the frenzied political debates on the cable news channels, or even in the pointed satire of comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
What was being drowned out from the conversation, Nelson said, was the individual’s voice — and the act of talking and listening. “Everything had to be an argument. If you were talking about politics, you had to take sides. But simply being able to talk freely and listen and even express your confusion is what should be primary. It doesn’t mean that you have to convince someone of anything.”
Nelson, who nabbed a Tony Award in 2000 for writing the book for the musical “James Joyce’s The Dead,” felt that theater was uniquely qualified to fill that gap. “It’s very difficult for newspapers to deal with a true give-and-take conversation,” he says. “That’s the world that the theater can illuminate because it’s so human-based and so character-based. It’s rooted in the complexity and the confusions of human nature.”
The goal, Nelson says, is to create an intimate dynamic where the audience feels “as if they’re looking through a window or a keyhole on a group of family members or eavesdropping on a conversation.”
“If you’ve got something that’s showy, that has fireworks, then the audience can sort of sit back and say, ‘OK, it’ll come to me.’ But if it’s something like this, the audience is made to do what I call active listening. We ask them to listen and hunt for it and try to figure it out,” Nelson says. “And therefore a relationship is created between the audience and the actors and the play that is a very rich one and a very deep one.”
Presented by New Repertory Theatre in association with Stoneham Theatre. At the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, Sept. 3-25. Tickets: $30-$59, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.