Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Patrick White. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Audrey Vermilyea, Matthew Side, James Bonura; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
Packing up a legacy
Tara Dedie, Jack Washock; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
When a family convenes to pack out a house filled with their collective memories, and many they've never shared, after the death of their father it is the revelations that bring them up short. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins 2013 Obie-winning play, "Appropriate" - now on stage at Albany Civic Theater, what this family discovers and how they react to new information moves them all farther apart then ever. A southern family, the LaFayettes are about as dysfunctional a group as any created before this by the famous southern writers, Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts or, well, pick anyone. Two brothers and a sister who have almost no relationship end up with less than they started with and their partners and children never bond either. Lordy, it feels real!
Frank and his girlfriend River break into the seemingly abandoned wreck of a home at the start of the play and the wreck, rectified, becomes more of a disaster by the end of the show. Frank is the black sheep of the family, although we soon discover that he may be the most stable member of the group. He, at least, undergoes personal salvation and revelation while most of his extended family revert to type. Frank (typically southern in this dramatic sense) was a pedophile. His brother Bo is a manic-depressive living in New York City with his Jewish wife. Toni, their sister, was the ultimate caregiver to their father, is divorced, butch and the mother of a son who is becoming a disturbing clone of dead "Dad," the man whose estate their sibling have come together to resolve. Dad was a bigot, a KKK member,a Nazi sympathizer, and a celebrator of the death of black men. He was an abuser of his children and most probably an abuser of their mother as well.
Through the discovery of a collection of photos of lynched blacks Toni's son Rhys is learning the sexual excitement of such images, much as his uncle Frank, or Franz, had in his youth. In the LaFayette family history is destined to repeat itself. There is anger, violence and affection in this play and it is a dangerous journey, a road less traveled even in the lore of southern theatrical history.
Jude Washock plays Frank. His salvation speech is brilliantly delivered to a gathering that couldn't care less about his reformation. It may seem that the return of the prodigal is the key to this play and Washock does the role justice, but Frank is not really the play's center. His girlfriend, River, is played nicely by Tara Dedie although her voice sometimes did not carry through the theater. Still she maintained a sympathetic appeal.
Bo is played by Matthew Side and he is the most consistent of the players. Once established his character moves forward toward an inevitable breakdown which he played movingly and sincerely. Rachael, his wife, is played by Josephine O'Connor and as a literal outsider in this family group she is dynamic and forceful, especially in the third act where she ultimately turns so human it is clear why Bo loves her.
Their daughter Cassidy, played by Audrey Vermilyea, is an essential part of the picture, witnessing as she does so much of the play's worst moments. Unfortunately Vermilyea has a few verbal quirks that made much of her dialogue impossible to hear. Cassidy's cousin, Rhys, is nicely played by James Bonura, and Jeremiah Mangini plays her little brother Ainsley whose second act appearance makes everything wrong in this family unit crystal clear.
Jessica (J.J.) Paul plays Toni, the sister in charge. She is a character derived from so many southern stereotypes and Paul brings her to vivid life as an individual in this play. Toni is the star, if one can call such a negative human being a star, of the family melodrama. Paul is wonderful portraying every dark and base element of the character. This actress holds together the disparate elements of the production.
Directed by Patrick White - fast becoming one of my favorite regional directors through his tireless concentration on the under-dog play, this play moves through its southern-retro story with an eagerness that overlooks the reality of a show in which nothing happens while everything occurs. Jacobs-Jenkins script is a quagmire of contradictions and slowly unraveling sanity and White manages to focus our attention on the important elements by utilizing the tiny steps of progress in the play to keep it real.
John Sutton's set is wonderful and Bethy Ruman's costumes are perfect. Edward Bablin's lighting is all darkness, inside and out. Jim Dick's sound design is disturbing, which is as it should be.
To suggest that this is a play not to miss would be a mistake unless you like dark subject matter, disturbing characters and a plot that plods its way through the murky southern summer season in which prejudice of all kinds is marked on the signposts at the corner. If that's your cup of tea, by all means go to the theater. If its not, well, take a chance. This ole house is worth a visit, just don't plan a long stay.
Appropriate plays at Albany Civic Theatre, 235 Second Avenue, Albany, NY through May 20. For information and tickets go on line at www.albanycivictheater.org or call the box office at 518-462-1297.