Incidental Moments of the Day: extraordinary ordinariness


In Incidental Moments of the Day, members of the Apple family convene on Soon.

Members of the Apple family enjoy an online dance performance.





Incidental Moments of the Day is complex, engaging, and so potentially inflammatory that I want to warn you before you watch it.

Between 2010 and 2013, playwright Richard Nelson wrote four plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has written three more scripts in which family members convene on Zoom. The plays in this trilogy are all subtle and moving.

In Incidental Moments of the Day, the Apple family, which, like my family, is white, talks about race. Barbara, a retired high-school English teacher, brings up a conversation in which her friend Margaret asked, “I don’t think just being white makes me a racist. What do you think?”

Barbara understands that for her, as a white liberal, publicly challenging anything about Black Lives Matter, is not allowed. But she wants the right to at least whisper questions. Her oblique answer to Margaret comes later when she quotes from a play: “For God’s sake, don’t take that away, our last means of existing, allow us to say, ‘It’s hard for us to live.’ Even like this, in a whisper: ‘It’s hard for us to live.’”

So Incidental Moments of the Day is elegiac. Like The Cherry Orchard, it’s about the twilight of a shaken and confused aristocracy.

But, unlike in The Cherry Orchard, the only people we see in Incidental Moments of the Day are “aristocrats.”

When Barbara’s lawyer brother Richard cites an incident in which a Canadian theatre company faced outrage for telling an Indigenous story without employing Indigenous actors — hello Robert Lepage! —  he trots out the notion that “Cultures are not the property of anyone.” Richard’s brother-in-law Tim challenges him — kind of — by quoting James Baldwin. But Tim’s ultimate point is that political reality is more complex than the young realize. So Tim’s a liberal, too.

The script’s refusal to present anything other than this monochromatic perspective results in a disappointingly narrow vision.

Still, I don’t want to dismiss either this script or this production. Playwright Nelson does tell us that Richard’s going blind, after all. And the sense of loss and aimlessness the characters are experiencing resonates not just in their confusion about race, but in their larger sense of sorrow in the face of Covid and political dread.

Jane, Tim’s partner, has only recently been able to admit that she’s depressed and that her days feel circular. Richard has been keeping his sister Barbara company during the quarantine but now he’s bought his own house, and his new girlfriend Yvonne is probably moving in. Barbara’s anxiety squeezes out in snarky little comments.

No matter where you look, you’re not going to find writing and performances that are more seductively naturalistic. Maryann Plunkett’s Barbara is spectacularly seamless. Just wait till you hear her telling one of Yvonne’s jokes — badly: it’s a master class in authenticity. A wonderful listener, Stephen Kunken also stands out as Tim.

Nelson’s plays are among the best the new digital age has produced. That doesn’t mean this one’s easy. If you’re going to watch it, brace yourself.

Incidental Moments of the Day is available on YouTube — free or by donation — until November 5.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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