Photo by Alan Simons

March 13, 2013

Theater: Family drama appropriately tackled in ‘Appropriate’

Part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays

‘Appropriate’
Continues through April 7 as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Gary Griffin. For tickets or info, go to actorstheatre.org or call 584-1265.

The eerie hum of the cicadas’ buzzing love songs fills the steamy summer air as three siblings drop their suitcases full of very different lives onto the dirty floor of their dead father’s house, their kids and partners along for the ride. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ American family drama, dark secrets emerge from the dusty clutter of an old Arkansas plantation, which the siblings are sorting through painfully. This script is dark and real, full of truthful humor and valuable wisdom, exploring roots, abandonment and discrimination from the past and present.

The entire play takes place in one main room over one weekend, carried by Jacobs-Jenkins’ robust dialogue, which the cast executes with grace. The adult siblings are uncomfortable, drained and out of their element, but being in the presence of one another — those who have known them their entire life, even held them as a baby — brings their true selves out quicker than they can say “liquidation.” Each sibling undergoes a clear and crucial transformation throughout the piece, and each one has his or her own distinct perspective and baggage. None of them are totally in the wrong or to blame, but none of them are necessarily right, either.

As the eldest sibling, Toni, Jordan Baker is astonishing to watch onstage. The playwright describes this character as the “New South, with the sense of a lost kingdom that has been recently betrayed by the rest of the country.” Baker achieves that on multiple levels, right down to the way she walks across the stage, as if the last 100 years’ worth of struggles are sitting on her shoulders, but she has this reservoir of strength that keeps her going no matter how difficult it is.

Her brother Bo and his wife Rachael (Larry Bull and Amy Lynn Stewart) are the perfect suburban New York power couple, complete with his and her Burberry pajamas. While their daily struggles seem like the epitome of first-world problems, their genuine pain shows. As their daughter, Cassidy, Lilli Stein is another standout performer as a present-day teenager. These kids grew up with high-speed Internet, and most of them have smartphones by middle school and can’t imagine being unable to access information instantly, and they’re probably way better at it than we are. Cassidy is curious, fast-paced and ahead of the game, but she will never find a solution to teen angst and hormones on the Internet, which Stein captures profoundly.

The honesty of this piece is particularly moving. It has a great deal of tragedy to it, and it certainly dismisses the “but we’re family and we love each other” message, but it’s not a downer. There are lots of laughs, maybe a few tears, and though it may not have quite the “appropriate” ending some audiences would hope for, it’s refreshing to see the kind of growth and healing that takes place in the characters — and the letting go.