The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same: That Hopey Changey Thing (3 Stars)

*’That Hopey Changey Thing’, written by Richard Nelson, directed by Weylin Symes. Presented by Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street in Stoneham through March 15.*

Benjamin Apple (Joel Colodner), a prolific actor, has suffered a heart attack, giving him a case of amnesia that interferes with his day to day life. His niece Barbara (Karen MacDonald) has agreed to take him in to live with her in Rhinebeck, New York. Her siblings, Richard (Bill Mootos), Jane (Laura Latreille) and Marian (Sarah Newhouse) come up to visit for the day, along with Tim (Paul Melendy), Jane’s new younger boyfriend, and Toby, a replacement for Benjamin’s recently departed dog. This, and the fact that it’s election eve of 2010, sets the scene for the next hour and thirty five minutes of *That Hopey Changey Thing*, part one in a series of four plays about the Apple family.

The Apples run the gamut from garrulous to quarrelsome to high strung, depending on the conversation and who is participating. Marian, a passionate worker for the Democratic party, is disgusted by brother Richard’s recent conversion to the other side. Barbara becomes self-conscious when Jane reveals that she is working on a book about manners, and the rules that go with them – who speaks first, what is being said versus subtext, etc. They are an uncomfortable family, with the exception of Richard, played with relaxed affability by Mootos.

Perhaps they are uncomfortable because their play has no real arc, despite Richard Nelson’s often interesting point of view (“Since when has not being worse become what we are?” Richard asks Marian, when she squawks that the Democrats are not as bad as the Republicans). The Apples spend a good chunk of the play discussing politics, but it doesn’t take them – or the audience anywhere. At one point, Richard forces Barbara to reveal her last conversation, which took place years ago when she was in college, with their dad, who’d abandoned them. According to Barbara, he handed her a twenty dollar bill, before telling her that while he knew she was his child, he wasn’t sure about the other three.

This should be big news. It wasn’t. The line was delivered, the Apples were quiet for a minute before half-heartedly asking Uncle Benjamin what he knew about their dad’s leaving, then moved on to a discussion of Obama. Which again, was marginally interesting, but served more as a platform piece for the writer’s views, rather than the characters’ development. Of which there isn’t much.

What saves the play is Symes’s lively direction and the talented cast. Joel Colodner manages to convey an entire array of emotions, ranging from helpless to angry to joyful, in a character who has no real connection to his past. Laura Latreille and Sarah Newhouse, both wonderful, natural actresses, are alternately relaxed and tightly wrapped, particularly Newhouse, whose Marian is intensely committed to being against the direction she sees her brother going in. Paul Melendy, as Tim, brings a friendly neutrality to some of the play’s more heated moments.