FROM OEDIPUS REX to Death of a Salesman, theatergoers have spent thousands of years watching families self-destruct. The family in question serves as a miniature version of a broken society, and neither one is going to survive the evening.
That Hopey Changey Thing doesn't totally depart from the setup, although it has formal ambitions. It's the first in a slated four-year, four-play series from playwright Richard Nelson, following the progressive Apple family from an upstate New York dinner party on election night, 2010, and revisiting them yearly. Third Rail Repertory has committed to producing the cycle over its next four seasons; a considerable gesture of faith from a small, discerning company. Let's hope the bet pays off, because That Hopey Changey Thing feels less like a complete play than a promising first act.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the theatrical norm is that the Apples—four grown siblings and their declining uncle—genuinely love each other. Some familial tensions are on display as dinner begins, and old wounds are probed (or gleefully jabbed), but there's no metaphoric gun waiting on the mantelpiece, and no prophecy more dire than a Republican takeover in Albany.
If not at war among themselves, the Apples are varyingly heartsick over the state of the nation. Their intra-liberal conversation, although backdated to 2010, is being replicated in many Portland dining rooms this fall. This could feel like attending a dinner party where you don't get to eat and characters occasionally suffer lapses into Playwright Syndrome, serving up thematic observations about national character and collective memory.
Happily, director Slayden Scott Yarbrough and his cast keep the Apples bright and alive. Jacklyn Maddux is particularly sharp: you may feel concerned that Third Rail has tricked a non-actor into coming on stage, so eerily unaffected is her portrayal of the family's elected peacekeeper. Every actor here is given something to work with, although only Bruce Burkhartsmeier's substitute patriarch gets to describe a full arc.
We're left to hope that Nelson has plans for the Apples that don't rely exclusively on the news cycle. This production ensures that we care about them, but That Hopey Changey Thing will make the leap from intriguing to impactful if, in four years, audiences look back and recognize the journey of the family—not just the nation they live in.