|Reese Madigan as Franz and Jordan Baker as Toni in Appropriate
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Part of the 37th Humana Festival
of New American Plays. Photo by Alan Simons.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Gary Griffin
Review by Keith Waits
Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits, all rights reserved.
In southeast Arkansas three adult siblings, suffering various degrees of estrangement among themselves, come together after their father’s death to deal with the estate. It is an entry point into a familiar Southern gothic scenario reminiscent of Tennessee Williams: characters awash in past sins and secrets, eager to reopen old wounds.
Playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins jumps into the deep end of such overripe storytelling and emerges with enough fresh insight and observation to make this new play a most worthwhile experience. His characters are well drawn and vividly realized enough to invite audience identification. Toni, the oldest (Jordan Baker), is a bitter and exasperated woman somewhat unhinged by recent events such as divorce and losing her job over a scandal involving her teenage son Rhys (David Rosenblatt). Middle son Bo (Larry Bull) enjoys a comfortable life in New York City with wife Rachael (Amy Lynn Stewart) and children Cassidy (Lilli Stein) and Ainsley (Gabe Weible); while black sheep Franz (Reese Madigan) arrives with much younger girlfriend Trisha (Natalie Kuhn) and an agenda of remorse and recovery that will play a key role in moving the drama forward.
That the story does move forward at times in great lurches of narrative momentum spurred by unexpected and startling images is one of the unique pleasures of the play. If it seems messy and unwieldy in spots, it only underscores those same qualities in the characters’ experiences. The theme of family history and the struggles among family members to claim, reject or judge the more unsavory aspects of that history is potent and resonant to those of us who may have confronted such situations in our own lives. Each of the characters in Appropriate is struggling to define or redefine themselves amidst emotional turmoil that, however raucously rendered, remains pointed in charting the resulting damage.
Not that this is heavy sledding. There is enough humor and surprise to engage the viewer as if one were watching a sitcom, with performances that heighten that sense of identification while creating fully original characters. Ms. Baker leads the way with a wry and funny turn that never seeks to ingratiate through cheap effect. I may not have liked this woman, but I will not soon forget her. The rest of the able cast keeps in step and manages an effective ensemble. But I must mention that Amy Lynn Stewart brings an extra level of authority to her forceful character, a northern-born Jewish woman acutely aware of her outsider status. The next generation is also given their due in that the playwright takes the time to develop Rhys and Cassidy as more than comic fodder, so that the legacy of pain and coping is charted with certainty, nicely expanding the depth and resonance of the story.
That depth is brilliantly made manifest with a detailed and evocative set design by Antje Ellerman that conjures the decaying culture of the antebellum South that still haunts society below the Mason-Dixon line. Sound by Bray Poor and lighting by Matt Frey effectively support the rich textures of the design scheme.
There are a few flaws: a series of final blackouts provide an unnecessary coda to a text that has already done its job efficiently enough; and there was a time or two when some highly-pitched emotional exchanges were followed by scenes wherein the conflict seems to have been resolved in mysterious ways. Yet the script is rich with the specter of the past haunting us in ways that we cannot always anticipate and may never be able to escape. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins and his collaborators are unafraid to leave things unresolved and allow a tough end to things. Sometimes the grievances are too insurmountable, or maybe we are too stubborn to seek forgiveness. Appropriate presents both attitudes for us to consider and make up our own minds.
Part of the 37th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
March 5 – April 7, 2013
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202