I went to see Sorry at the Public Theater. Sorry is the third play by Richard Nelson to dramatize the lives of the fictional Apple Family. For those of us who did not see the first two plays, brief synopses of plays 1 and 2 are included in the playbill. Here’s what we learn: a main character in all three plays, Uncle Benjamin Apple, was a well known actor who had a heart attack that sent him into a coma. In Play One the drama takes place on November 2, 2010. Benjamin has retired from acting and moved in with his niece, Barbara, who lives in Rhinebeck, New York. In Play Two, set on September 11, 2011, Barbara’s sister, Marian, has moved in with her and Benjamin. Marian and her husband Adam had split up. Their son, Evan, had committed suicide for unknown reasons.
Sorry takes place on Election Day of this year. Barbara and Marian’s sister Jane is visiting from New York City. The play begins with the three sisters, played by Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins and J. Smith-Cameron, relaxing in Barbara and Marian’s living room. They are wearing pajamas. When their brother Richard (actor Jay G. Sanders) arrives at 5 am, the sisters are still up talking. One thing engaging about the Apple family is that you can easily picture them as children growing up together – their mannerisms suggest intimate ties from innocence have endured. They are a nice family to be around.
Uncle Benjamin (played by Jon Devries) enters the living room. The chit chat between the siblings, ranging from superficial to slightly hysterical, a range typical of many families, ends and all attention if focused on Benjamin. He seems confused a lot of the time with a temper that flares up on occasion. He is, nevertheless, also a likeable character. It is easy to imagine he was once a great actor. He is, in his good moments, an eloquent speaker. I wonder, in my role of audience member, if he is the designated family troublemaker. I consider that as the plot focused on him unravels, family conflict will take on dramatic turns.
It quickly unfolds, however, the reason the family is together on this day is heart wrenching for all. Benjamin is being sent to an assisted living home. His memory problems have become severe and he has developed erratic, dark emotional behavior to deal with that he is not cognizant of. It is clearly breaking Barbara’s heart, and Marian’s too to a lesser degree, to have to send him to an assisted living home. Yet Barbara and Marian are not qualified to take care of him with his level of health problems.The audience is sympathetic to their plight.
To keep a sense of humor and good will through this sad event, the Apple siblings tell each other stories. Richard is a particularly good story teller. About mid way into the play he tells his sisters that Andrew Cuomo has implied he’d like to hire Richard, who is a lawyer, to be a part of his government administration. It is engaging to listen to Richard describe to his sisters his dealings with Cuomo, a politician he does not particularly likes but respects. Discussions around real life politics happen throughout Sorry; it is Election Day after all. Views on Obama, Romney, Cuomo, even Hurricane Sandy, are mixed in with the drama of having to send the beloved Uncle Benjamin to an old people’s home.
In the midst of Richard telling his story about Cuomo, Sanders moves out of character. “We need an usher,” he says. At around the same time an audience member in the front rushes out of the theater. Sanders explains to the audience that “a woman in the first row needs medical attention.” From my seat in the balcony, I can see an elderly woman in the front row is rocking back and forth in her seat. She appears to be having a seizure or stroke. The audience is quiet as this real life medical emergency unfolds. The actors behave with impeccable professionalism – and what I mean is you instantly understand that our theater community’s first priority (a play in progress) is to get the sick woman the help she needs. Jon Devries, the elderly and ill Benjamin, moves out of character and goes to the woman’s side. He doesn’t speak in a voice the audience can hear, but is clearly concerned for the woman’s welfare. During the full stop, I never perceive Sanders or Plunkett, Robins or Smith-Cameron move out of character (or stay in it for that matter). Smith-Cameron, for instance, brings water to the woman to drink from the pitcher that is a prop at their pretend dining room table.
Sanders maintains his authority as emergency director with grace. For example, while the woman is laid out on the floor in front of her seat, front center stage, the audience suddenly gets very noisy as we converse among ourselves in excited, nervous tones about the her condition. Sanders kindly requests that we keep our voices down, reminding us the collapsed woman needs peace and quiet. This is obviously the right advice and we easily comply; our noise is unintentional. The woman regains her strength enough to sit back down in her seat. She wants to stay and watch the rest of the show. She decides instead the best thing is to leave the theater to lie down. I hope the audience does not clap as she exits. About 40% of the audience does clap for her. The clapping does not come off terribly vulgar after all – an expression of our theater-goer relief for her that she leaves us standing up.
Sanders kindly asks from her as she exits to please come back and see the play again. We all pull together our attentiveness and the action resumes. In honor of Election Day, the siblings talk animatedly about the economic problems in America. Marian and Barbara are teachers. They lament how standardized tests are hurting public education. I think Jane tells a story about a 22-year-old boy she knows who worries he will not get a decent job ever. He thinks the country won’t have it together in time for him to get the training he will need to get hired – the 15-year-olds will get the training. His generation will be bypassed.
We do not see the Apple family take Benjamin to the assisted living home. As I believe is the custom of the Apple family plays, the personal tragedy is inferred to, but not acted out on stage. Once out of the theater, it became more and more difficult for me to separate the elderly woman’s collapse from the societal concerns of the play. I hope her collapse would not deter her or any other elderly person from again attending a play or social event I go to. I would much prefer having an elderly person disrupt my day due to illness than to worry about elderly people isolated and alone in an assisted living or nursing homes. This is a not in any way a criticism of the people who attend to the elderly. On the contrary, I have never seen such devotion to care for sick people than in my visits to nursing homes, but they need more financial and public support for the extremely difficult work they do.
A lot of the economic problems in America are complicated, but if every able bodied adult decided to volunteer a few hours a month to visit a senior citizen or nursing home to play a board game or simply talk to even just one elderly person, I am convinced this effort would lead to clear gains in societal health as a whole. If going to an elderly home is not an option than people could volunteer those three hours a month to walk elderly people across the street, engage them in conversation at social events, organize trustworthy communities to shop for elderly neighbors, watch over them.
When the actors of Sorry came out for their bow, there was generous audience applause, well deserved, and a few standing ovations. Unusual for an Off Broadway production the actors clapped back at us. It made sense under the circumstances.
This review is in loving memory of my father, David Waters (1939-2012), who took me to see Richard Burton in Camelot when I was 17 years old, an event that changed my life forever.