APPROPRIATE: Race, Sex, Family Dysfunction, History, and Ghosts
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company
At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220
Performances: April 28-May 20, with Previews on April 25 & 27. Showtimes 7PM Thursday; 8PM Friday & Saturday; 2PM Sunday. Talkbalk after the May 6 matinee.
Ticket Prices: $10-35
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
Appropriate, an award-winning -play by young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is one of the most shocking, inappropriate, and well-done productions of the season. And to be clear, there is very little that takes place in this play that could be called “appropriate” by any stretch of the imagination.
The patriarch of the Lafayette family has died, and his three heirs reunite at his Southeast Arkansas plantation house to settle his decrepit estate. The siblings, Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette (Susan Sanford), Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette (Joe Pabst), and François “Franz/Frank” Lafayette (Happy Mahaney) have been estranged, and Frank’s ill-timed attempt to reunite leads to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets.
As the only girl, Toni was left with many of the household responsibilities after the death of the trio’s mother, including caring for her troublesome younger brother, Frank, and their dying father. This has left her bitter and, apparently, emotionally unstable. Sanford played this role to the hilt and it was the first time in my life I ever felt like strangling the affable actress. Sanford made Cruella de Vil, or whatever female villain comes to mind, look like mother of the year.
Mahaney, turned up unexpectedly for his own father’s estate sale and auction, climbing in through an open window with his new-age fiancé, River Rayner (Kathryn Humphries). Mahaney’s lovable inability to complete a sentence, or indeed to make sense at any time, along with his boyish good looks and his character’s bad-boy background made it difficult to trust Frank’s assurances of having put aside his old ways. Toni’s repeated questions to anyone in earshot as to whether Frank was high or drunk were initially annoying – but an explosive revelation in Act 3 brought clarity to those accusations and make her seem just a little less crazy. (But I still wanted to strangle her.)
Tyler Stevens plays Toni’s teen-aged son, Rhys Thurston, who seems to be following in his estranged uncle’s footsteps. And for some reason, most of the family seems to be okay with the possibility that Bo’s daughter, Cassidy seems to have a crush on Rhys – who happens to be her first cousin, by my reckoning. I know the play is set in Arkansas, but the characters now live in New York and Portland, Oregon, and other places where that sort of thing is not condoned. On opening night, Cassidy was played by Caroline Johnson, a former elementary student of mine, I am proud to say, but probably not as proud as her mother, director Anna Senechal Johnson. Lola Mühlenfeld and Grace Connell are also listed for this role in the program.
Pabst plays Bo with shaking hands and tense, terse verbal exchanges. Bo is a ticking time bomb, caught between the needs of his wife, Rachel (Jill Bari Steinberg) and the unreasonable demands of his sister, Toni. I do not envy his position. He has problems of his own, and little or no space to deal with them, and his third act breakdown is much needed.
As the outsiders, Rachel and River become friends, but when things come to a boil and an honest to goodness brawl breaks out in the cluttered living room of the old manor house, they find themselves caught up in the fray. John Chenard must have had a ball staging the choreography for this fight: furniture is tossed, Rhys jumps on his uncle’s back – or was it his dad’s back? – pillows are smashed into faces, and words are thrown out that make it impossible to look the others in the face the next morning.
As the family struggles to make sense of their past, their loss, and their future, they uncover some disturbing memorabilia about their deceased father: an album full of pictures showing the lynching of black people, and jars containing souvenirs ears and bones and such. What does this all mean and how do they reconcile this with the father they knew? Sometimes a sheet is just a sheet, and sometimes it’s not. . .
It’s interesting that Appropriate is playing in the Theatre Gym while right next door in the larger November Theatre space River Ditty is also exploring themes of family secrets and dysfunction, societal intolerance and racism. And it seems more than a coincidence that Appropriate is playing this season while Richmond, Charlottesville, and other locales are still reeling from the discussions of whether statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags are simply history or heritage or hurtful symbols of a deeply rooted institutional racism.
Appropriate was directed by Cadence Theatre Company’s Artistic and Managing Director, Anna Senechal Johnson. The beautifully detailed set was designed by Rich Mason. Special note should be made for Daniel Burgess’ set dressing and all the stage and properties managers who transformed the stage. The opening act showed the cluttered living room of a bonafide hoarder; the second act showed a cleaned-up room; and in the final scene of Act Three, a crew destroyed the room in a matter of seconds – tearing up the floor, smashing down bookcases, taking down pictures, staining the walls. There were even plants climbing in through the shattered windows!
Michael Jarett designed the lighting – I think I mentioned in another post that he’s designed the lighting for all but possibly two shows that are running this month, including several dance productions! Albert Ruffin, my date for opening night, declared repeatedly on the walk back to the car that Appropriate is “the best show I’ve seen all season.” It is, without a doubt, powerful, memorable, well-written, superbly acted (I still want to strangle Susan Sanford/Toni), and deftly directed. I highly recommend it.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography