Between each scene in Sweet and Sad, there's a simple sound effect: a breath. It's a small sound—a slight inhale, a longer exhale—and easy to miss. It's also a lovely and poignant touch, a reminder of what sustains us. And it's a gesture that, just like the play, sneaks up on you in a quiet and astounding way.
That breath is the least of reasons to see this affecting Third Rail production, directed by Scott Yarbrough. Following last season's That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad is the second in Richard Nelson's four-play series about the Apple family. It's a topical cycle: Hopey Changey was set on the day of the 2010 midterm elections, and this installment finds the family on Sept. 11, 2011. Don't worry if you missed the first one—you'll quickly pick up on the family's dynamics in Sweet and Sad, which is the richer and wiser of the two plays. The largely liberal clan has again gathered in upstate New York at the home of schoolteacher Barbara, who lives with her sister Marian (Maureen Porter, whose naturalistic and assured performance is so good it hurts) and their uncle, a retired actor with amnesia. Up from Manhattan are Barbara and Marian's two siblings, a fat-cat lawyer (a very funny and playfully prickly Michael O'Connell) and a writer, who's brought along her actor boyfriend (Isaac Lamb, perfectly on the edge of the action as the sole outsider). As they eat a late lunch, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks suffuses conversation. But this is at its heart a family drama, and the play beautifully weaves together the political and the personal.
Dialogue is intimate and affectionate, but passive-aggressive undercurrents simmer beneath each joke or gibe. Grief and guilt loom large, most heartbreakingly during conversations about the death of Marian's teenage daughter. The actors inhabit their roles fully, and there's no affect or exaggeration to Lamb's deferential tone, to O'Connell's impish expressions, to Porter's departures when conversation turns dark.
Nelson, the playwright, is a master at raising provocative questions without giving any easy answers. How do we distinguish between victims and heroes? How do we compensate for the loss of life? But far from these inconclusive exchanges feeling evasive, the very difficulty of such conversations becomes the play's subject. Next year's Apple family gathering can't come soon enough.
SEE IT: Sweet and Sad is at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 235-1101. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays through Oct. 20. $20-$43.