Racial themes, family drama vie for attention
Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
A well-constructed play about a fractured southern family returning to their gothic ancestral home with the purpose of settling their dead father’s estate can’t fail to get a fair and attentive hearing from audiences. The theme is a formula for instant fascination.
So, it is with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, a vehicle so rich in both detail and implication that it defies easy synopsis.
The production’s opening is preceded by an extended period of sound effects representing a chorus of cicadas that grows into a disturbing din.
The stage is enclosed by a gigantic semi-circular diaphanous shower curtain-like device that offers a murky preview of the set. It suggests a thin permeable skin which barely contains the toxic elements it shields. Similarly, the cicada sound might be interpreted as a warning knell, the insects which appear every 13 years after lying dormant underground, growing loudest just as they die.
Thus, before the curtain is even retracted we are forewarned that Appropriate is the kind of play which is loaded with signs and portents. It would be easy but counter-productive to, in sophomore English theme style, read deep meaning into almost every prop and double-entendre in the show. Without decoding each symbol and visual effect what happens on stage is enough to engage and challenge all but the most analytical viewer. Like the cicadas and the cluttered decaying house, though, the subterranean, sub textual content is always there, ready to break through and make itself apparent.
Directed by Brian Mertes, Appropriate is on stage through Nov. 6 in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling Theater, downstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence.
The surviving Lafayette family members, riven by estrangement, are drawn back together by the necessity of disposing of their patriarch, Ray’s, crumbling mansion and dividing up the assets, but also, consciously or otherwise, they are there for one last reckoning of who has been responsible for what. There is much to answer for, too.
As the play opens Frank, the youngest sibling, literally breaks into the house, accompanied by his much younger companion and lover, River. Afflicted by addiction to drugs and alcohol as well as a predilection for underage girls, Frank, now calling himself Franz, is the outcast. No-one has seen him for 10 years.
Soon the rest of the clan is assembled, and the result is certainly not a happy reunion. Antoinette, called Toni, is the oldest sister. Embittered and vituperative, she resents having acquiesced to the role of caretaker, nursing her father through his final illness after having helped raise Frank and his older brother Beauregarde, (known as Bo) after their mother died.
Accompanying Bo is his wife Rachel and their children Cassidy and Ainsley. Toni’s rebellious and anti-social son Rhys completes the assembled clan.
The inside of the house is a metaphor for the inside of the family. It is the legacy of an outwardly respected man of achievement, who in reality is a hoarder who also harbors a dark secret. He has left for his children the unenvious task of dealing with the messy unresolved and un-confronted detritus of a false life made visible for all to see. From the objects he left behind it is possible to form an image of the family’s collective past.
The catalyst for the implosion of the last pretense of civility among the three children and the mates of two of them is the discovery among the debris of an album containing grotesque photos of dead black people who have been lynched. Confusing things even more is the fact that no one can make a firm connection between the horrendous pictures and their dead paterfamilias. It isn’t clear whether he even knew of their existence. So, they try to rationalize the horror they have uncovered.
As the siblings argue, reminisce, recriminate, confess regret, point fingers of blame, and yield to their own prejudices, they nevertheless cling to the thin lack of certainty about what their father knew of the album and what it documented.
At one point Bo, in an ironic choice of words, declares that their father was “a slave to his upbringing like everyone else.” Ruefully for each of them, they are too.
Toni is full of acrimony over giving up her independence to nurse her father through his final years and become a surrogate mother to her younger brothers. Her marriage has failed, and she is losing the battle to retain her son’s love and keep him from ruin. Bo, like Frank, but with much more conventional social and economic status, has separated himself from the others. His opinionated Jewish wife is a target for the family’s repressed anti-Semitism and adds to his sense of having become an outsider.
Frank, who grew up without a mother and subject to Toni’s controlling ways, is the ultimate rebel, his addictions and transgressions an acting out behavior too extreme to be excused. Yet, his need is enormous, and his presence at the house is as much an effort to apologize and start over as it is a move to ensure he gets his share of any inheritance that is there. River, his girlfriend, present to help him succeed, is in her early twenties. She is filled with New Age patter about spiritualism, reconciliation, and renewal, the innocence of youth giving her blind faith.
The children, representing another generation and the future, bring into bold relief the stakes assigned to the outcome of what happens to the radioactive album and their grandfather’s legacy, both financially and in terms of the family’s values.
Eventually, everyone dives into this vile stew. The album becomes a pawn in the struggle, which eventually devolves into physical combat when they learn that the highly unusual and controversial content of the photos makes them extremely valuable, a fact that raises the ante since they have found out the estate is encumbered by debt.
Occasionally talky and overburdened by a bit too many layers of meaning and allusion, Appropriate evokes comparison with everything from Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to Edgar Allan Poe’s The House of Usher, but in Jacobs-Jenkins’ hands it ultimately emerges as its own, well-earned endeavor. It might be too pat an analysis to ascribe a direct parallel between the Lafayette family and white America, but the correlation is possible to suggest. The racial conflicts and the tortured equivocation of Bo and Toni cannot be ignored. Neither can this play.
Phyllis Kay is outstanding in the role of Toni. Her vitriol is frightening at times, and her speech to River about sweet girls and what happens to their sweetness is both anguished and tender, embodying the character’s immense sense of loss. It is delivered with exquisite skill.
Fred Sullivan, is fine as Bo. Often the funnyman, he is superb in a serious role, which nevertheless includes some very funny lines. Overall, it is a very powerful performance.
Mauro Hantman is presented with a challenging role in the part of Frank, the sibling who unwittingly finds a way to deal with the album, which has materialized into a curse. At various times he is tasked with being incredulous, dense, remorseful, angry, contrite, and inspired. He meets the challenge brilliantly.
Angela Brazil excels as Rachel, Bo’s urbane wife deposited in an alien landscape. In a showdown scene with Toni that accelerates into a fight, she is compelling and riveting. Excellent work.
Alec J. Weinberg does well as Rhys. Marina Morrisey is River, a role she handles, but one in which she might have explored the texture a bit more.
Emeline Easton plays Cassidy and Robin Scott is Ainsley.
The set, designed by Sara Brown, is something to behold. Dressing it every night certainly requires a prodigious effort. Kudos to the crew.
Appropriate should not be missed.