Talking with the actress Maryann Plunkett recently, it was hard to know, at times, whether she was speaking as herself or Barbara, Mary or Kate — the three characters she has played over the course of Richard Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama” cycle.
Plunkett, 68, has, after all, spent a lot of time immersed in Nelson’s created world: She and her husband, Jay O. Sanders, have appeared in each of the Rhinebeck cycle’s 12 plays. And when the final installment, “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” closed on Sunday, she ended an 11-year journey that documented the lives of three families in upstate New York.
There were the Apples, who lived through and reminisced about epochal moments in American history, such as Sept. 11, and came together on Zoom during the pandemic lockdown. Then came the Gabriels, whom Nelson visited three times during the 2016 presidential election year. And after that, the Michaels, an artistic family facing the death of its matriarch, a luminary of modern dance.
Plunkett made her Broadway debut in 1983, replacing Carrie Fisher (herself replacing Amanda Plummer) in “Agnes of God,” and opened the musical “Me and My Girl” as the lead three years later. But while she had established herself as a New York treasure, seeing Plunkett in Nelson’s plays, with their profoundly humane intertwining of politics and family relationships, felt revelatory. Over the years, you could see the most subtle emotions float on her face; she would draw the audience in without appearing to be acting at all.
Barbara, Nelson said, is “sort of the heart” of the Apple family. “And that’s very much something that comes out of Maryann just naturally,” he added. “She’s an extraordinarily truthful actor, and because of that each time it’s alive, it’s fresh, it’s real. And it’s present, it’s immediate.”
With the conclusion of the “Rhinebeck Panorama,” Plunkett is taking on other projects, including a new musical in development and the Kelly Reichardt film “Showing Up,” in which she plays Michelle Williams’s mother.
None of that, though, makes leaving her Rhinebeck characters any easier. In a video interview from her home in Manhattan ahead of the last performance, Plunkett talked Apples and pimentos, a certain election night and moving on. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
There are similarities among the three women you have played in the cycle, yet they are not the same people at all. How did you work it out with Richard Nelson?
His writing is so specific, without giving you directions on how to do it, that you would just go: “Oh, only Barbara would say this,” or “Kate would never say this.” So it’s very clear without being obvious that, yeah, this is Barbara’s soul, this is Mary’s soul, this is Kate’s soul. I mean, who gets a chance to do a project like this in their lives? Not a lot of people. And to do it with your husband? What a gift that we have been given.
And you never played a couple in the cycle.
[laughs] No! We were brothers and sisters, then he was my brother-in-law, and in this one I’m the widow of his ex-wife. It was very easy to play brother and sister because we really like each other, and we’re playful with each other. I suppose in a strange way maybe you don’t want to play lovers or something because people might go “Oh, they have no chemistry together.” That would be really embarrassing.
The characters all feel real, and lived in. Did anything particularly resonate with you?
My mom died three weeks before our first read-through of the first Apple play. She had dementia, and I spent a lot of time with her. Uncle Benjamin, in the Apple plays, had a stroke. It wasn’t dementia, but it manifested itself in things that are similar to dementia, and I felt a great closeness. The yearning maybe was for my own mother, with the protectiveness and responsibility toward him. So much so that after the final performance of the fourth play I said to John DeVries, who played Benjamin, “I feel like I’m having to say goodbye to my mother again.”
The conclusion of the Gabriels trilogy, “Women of a Certain Age,” takes place on election night 2016. What was it like to do the show, at the Public Theater, that specific evening?
After the play they had a reception downstairs, and they had monitors all around the lobby. I was looking at Richard, and I said, “Oh come on, how bad can it be?” And he said, “Don’t look” [laughs]. And this pall fell over the crowd. My son and his girlfriend were there, it was only the second election they had ever voted in. The next night we were, mercifully, off. When we came back on Thursday, the audience was so somber. Things that used to be a laugh line — it was just these sounds of grief.
Food has played a central part in the shows. In the Gabriels plays, you even had to cook in real time. Was it hard to focus on your lines?
There was a lot to prepare: Slicing a sausage or an onion, and some things had to be in the oven by a certain time. Of course I’m not looking at a timer, it had to be in by a certain line. It’s almost like music: There is a rhythm. This one [“What Happened?”] is the first play where I have nothing to do, preparing or serving the dinner, and during rehearsal it was weird for me. “Can I do this?” “No, you can’t come in and start cooking; this isn’t your home.”
What has it been like to spend 11 years on this project?
It has been the experience of my lifetime. Our son was in high school, and now he’s 27 years old. My mom had just died, my dad had died three and a half years before the first play. It’s crazy. When we did the 9/11 one, “Sweet and Sad,” you could tell when there were people in the audience who had perhaps lost someone because you would feel the grief. And some nights in this one, when I’m talking about Rose’s death and say it was the virus, sometimes you will hear reactions [makes a gasping sound]. And it’s very hard to just stay focused.
What is it like to face down the last performance?
I have to say to myself, “We’re going to do a tour” [laughs]. I can’t be self-indulgent and go “Oh my God, it’s over, poor me!” The other day during the show, I got emotional so I picked up the jar of pimentos on the table, and that grounded me. I held on to them until I finished that section. Richard’s characters feel deeply, but they are strong people and they will survive, you know. They will move forward.
It looked like he was done with the Apples after four plays, but then he wrote three more for Zoom. Is the “Rhinebeck Panorama” really finished?
Sad as I am to say that, yes, I believe it is. It’s this decade, in this country, and in the lives of these three families. And the decade is over, plus one.