At one point in Richard Nelson's "Sweet and Sad," a rich, wise and emotionally complex drama set around a dinner table on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, now in its Chicago premiere at the intimate Profiles Theatre, one of the characters starts talking to a bereaved person about the daughter she has lost.
I should say right away that the girl didn't die in the World Trade Center. Even though this play actually premiered at the New York Public Theatre on the very day of its setting, almost a year ago, Nelson is a sufficiently sophisticated playwright to know that the significance of, and the feelings engendered by, monumental events are best approached with a glancing blow. Still, halfway through this scene at Friday night's opening, I was suddenly taken back to a recent moment when, seated around a table, I'd found myself next to a bereaved parent and I started asking a lot of questions about the child he had lost.
"Am I doing the right thing here?" I recall wondering nervously in the middle of our intense conversation. Is this what this lovely man needs? Does talking in such detail about the lost soul help with or merely amplify the pain? Nelson's play is about many things, but nothing more powerful than the difficulty we face as humans about how to grieve and when to stop. (David Lindsay-Abaire's fine play "Rabbit Hole," is about much the same thing.) At one point in "Sweet and Sad," another character ventures the opinion that the best possible memorial for the people lost in the 9/11 attacks would be "one that had an end." I've been thinking about that line all weekend.
"Sweet and Sad" is, you might say, a dinner-table play, featuring three adult sisters (played by Kristin Ford, Harmony France and Kate Harris), one troubled boyfriend (Eric Burgher), one lawyer-brother (Darrell W. Cox) and their uncle Benjamin (Robert Breuler), an old actor who, following a heart attack, has developed amnesia — which, in a world that produced 9/11, is self-evidently not an entirely bad thing.
As these siblings, gathered on this anniversary in one of their number's homes in Rhinebeck, N.Y. — just before one sister, a teacher, puts on a remembrance service with her high school students — eat and talk about the normal stresses of their lives, the play's deeper tensions (especially that between remembering versus forgetting) slowly emerge amid the small talk and joshing. If you saw Dan LeFranc's "The Big Meal" at American Theater Company or Theresa Rebeck's "Omnium Gatherum," you'll be familiar with the basic table setup, though "Sweet and Sad" has no structural tricks. Just ordinary talk, leading to small revelation, leading, haltingly, to bigger truths.
It is a pleasure to experience a play that feels so current — which is a rarity in the theater, where it usually takes years for new plays to be processed through the system. This piece is a kind of sequel to "That Hopey Changey Thing," which looked at this same family, the Apples, on election night 2010. You don't need to have seen the former piece; in fact, this is the second of four planned, au courant Nelson plays, each designed to premiere on the day of its setting. It will be interesting, at some point, to see them all together.
The director at Profiles, Joe Jahraus, captures the intimacy and aggression of typical conversation among adult siblings. It's a tricky piece to stage: Nelson goes out of his way to emphasize naturalistic conversation and eschews traditional plot points and the building of dramatic tension, making it not the easiest play to track without help from the director.
Sometimes Jahraus lets the energy sag, and the piece has sections in which the actors, not all of whom are ideally cast, mumble and seem to get temporarily caught in the minutiae of the meal. Moreover, I suspect New Yorkers in the house might well think some of these quite genial actors need more of that East Coast bite and intellectual aggression (although France is a caustic exception).
Nonetheless, there are many powerful moments in this 100-minute show, which is well worth seeing. Many of these insights flow from Breuler's beautifully vulnerable and understated performance, and from some lovely work by Ford, who plays a sad young woman caught among grief, anger, betrayal, loss and, well, just getting on with life, since those things seem to be unavoidable anyway.
When: Through Oct. 7
Where: The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at
773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org.