Review: ‘appropriate’ at SpeakEasy Stage

By Robert Israel

To quote the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, age 30, is “young, gifted and black,” and he’s written a wickedly good play about a dysfunctional white family returning to its Southern roots. He’s drawn raucous inspiration (or is that sampled?) from the works of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Yasmina Reza, Sam Shepard, and Edgar Allan Poe. But appropriate is not your standard example of ‘creative’ stealing or recycling: Jacobs-Jenkins’ nimble hands have picked these literary pockets with arch aplomb. The result: the SpeakEasy Stage production, which kicks off its 25th season, is a blockbuster.

The play is set in a sprawling, cluttered living room in a former plantation in southeast Arkansas. Three siblings – two men and a woman – gather with their respective families to sort through what’s been left behind by Ray, their late hoarder of a father. They are caught, in poet Galway Kinnell’s words, “…in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.” Everything around them is crumbling as they quibble and torture one another about who deserves what. Their contests, fueled by greed and personal animosity, ultimately give way to chaos and mayhem. They’ve spent so many years apart that they are left groping, blindly, to find the threads that once held their family together.

Toni, played with sharp-edged intensity by Melinda Lopez, is the eldest sibling. She’s been at this sorrowful wreck of a plantation home a week earlier to sort through the rubble. She’s had some successes; as her brother Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) sarcastically puts it, she’s moved junk from one room to another. Mostly she’s been mired down in the refuse. Divorced, she comes in tow with her troubled young son, Rhys (Eliott Purcell). Her other brother, Franz (Alex Pollock), who spent a long time in the home with Ray — supposedly to help turn the dilapidated manse into a bed and breakfast — has now returned from Oregon with his New Age-ish girlfriend River (Ashley Risteen). Franz is an older version of Rhys: his life has been a mess and he is in search of some sort of redemption.

The narrative revolves around the discovery of a photo album, left in plain sight in the bookshelf, which reveals a disturbingly racist chapter in the family’s history. We are told, often, that this particular plantation once harbored slaves. We know they are buried in the back yard in unmarked graves. Rain, via her “sensitive” nature, picks up “vibes” that something is deeply amiss — anguished spirits are aswirl. You don’t need any more info to get the Southern Gothic picture: this is a modern day House of Usher sitting on a Gone-With-the-Wind fault line. A tremor will break the house and its inhabitants into bits.

The production’s acting is first-rate. The cast members are well directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, who makes sure that each character is given his or her own tightly-wound spin — individual warts and wrinkles are exposed and then merged into the collective mishegas of the ensemble. There are ample moments of humor, usually at the expense of familial pain, sprinkled throughout the play. The comic skills of the younger members of the cast, youngster Brendan O’Brien as Aimsley and Katie Elinoff as Bo and Rachel’s (Tamara Hickey) teenage daughter Cassidy, are particularly welcome.

Much praise should be given to Cristina Todesco for the cluttered set, which gives way to a neatly packaged yard sale look in the second act. And the fight choreography by Angie Jepson is excruciatingly precise: one marvels at the precision and wonders why the cast hasn’t been bloodied (for real) during the tumult. Costumes by Tyler Kinney, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, and sound by Arshan Gailus are never intrusive. The cast, set, and script are woven together seamlessly.

Thematically there is no new ground being explored here. No stunning revelations about the sins of twisted humanity (despite the playwright’s affixing Biblical titles to each act). We learn nothing fresh about the secrets families keep (that is what makes them families). We’ve seen plenty of shows about how pettiness and pain generate internecine violence, and often learned the debilitating results of American denial — of history, crime, injustice, etc. It’s all been explored – and exposed — before, with lesser or greater successes by the aforementioned playwrights Jacobs-Jenkins has freely but exultantly “borrowed” from.

What we do learn from appropriate is how a talented young playwright, taking on the role of an expert literary pilferer, can turn an act of mischievous homage into a work of exhilarating entertainment. And the talented SpeakEasy Stage cast and crew have come up with a memorable variation on the venerable American home wreck.

Tamara Hickey, Eliott Purcell, Melinda Lopez, and Bryan T. Donovan (floor) in the SpeakEasy Stage production of “appropriate.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

**

This review previously appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

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