By Karen Isaacs
Writers, including playwrights, love dysfunctional families. From Oedipus to August, Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dysfunctional families have populated the stage.
For any family, the death of the last parent and the dismantling of the home and possessions of the parents are times of stress, bringing up emotions, resentments and memories. For a family that is fractured in some way, these events can trigger Armageddon.
This is the basis of the story of Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now at Westport Country Playhouse through Sept. 2.
The play opens with what seems an eternity of blackness and loud whirring sounds that could be traffic, machinery, or as we learn actually are cicadas, those insects that emerge from the ground every 13 years to mate, bury the eggs and then die.
Into a darkened overly cluttered house, a man enters through a window followed by a younger woman. It is Frank and his fiancée, River, entering his father home in rural Arkansas. He has returned because the house will be auctioned within days. Frank, who now calls himself, Franz, is, we learn, the “wayward” son – the last to leave the family home, the one who has battled addictions, who committed a terrible act, and who has been out of touch for ten or so years.
Why has he come?
We soon meet Toni, the eldest sibling who is tactless, aggressive and angry. During the course of the play, we learn her backstory. She mothered her two younger brothers when their mother died, she has spent time looking after their ailing father, and she not only recently was divorced but she has lost her job and her son is estranged from her. She feels put upon, unappreciated and overwhelmed.
By morning we have met Bo, the middle child and his wife, Rachel, and their two children – the younger Ainsley and the 13-year-old Cassie. Bo, too has resentments and pressures on him: he has supported his father and the house during the final years and resents that Toni was named the executor; he is also under job pressure, plus his wife harbors resentment towards the father.
I can’t tell you about all the resentments and family skeletons that emerge during the course of this rather lengthy (2 hours 45 minute) play. Let’s just say that at the heart of the revelations and fights are how each sibling views the father and how each feels he or she was treated. Each believes he or she was short-changed in some way.
Jacobs-Jenkins has added in a large degree of mysticism or spirits: is the house haunted?
But one of the primary conflicts, besides the age old question of who did dad love best, is how each of the siblings and Bo’s wife, view the father. Toni has idealized the man, while Bo and Franz have varying degrees of realistic understanding.
Yet all of them, seem blindsided when one aspect of their father’s history (and beliefs) is discovered: a photo album that contains horrifying images. Toni resists accepting that her father, a Harvard educated lawyer who was talked about as a possible Supreme Court candidate, could have harbored such beliefs.
As with any young playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins has tried to cram too much into this work. He is very talented, but in his program interview he talks about family dramas and that they are all about race or ethnicity or identity. In some ways it is easy to see the sources of his inspiration.
Adding to all of that, is very heavy and sometime obvious symbolism. He has titled the three acts of the play: The Book of Revelations, Walpurgisnacht (or witches’ night) and The Book of Genesis. Then there is the supernatural element to the play. River, Franz’s fiancée, believes she detects ghostly vibes in the house, and this is carried through to the rather bizarre and overly long ending. Let’s just say that it doesn’t end when you think it does.
Even the title of the play, Appropriate, has multiple meanings and pronunciations. It can be suitable or to take without permission. Both seem operable in this play.
Director David Kennedy has done an excellent job with his cast to keep the play moving and to illuminate, at least some of the issues. He is aided by the various sound, lighting and set affects the play requires. So kudos to the production team: Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Matthew Richards (lighting) and Fitz Patton (sound).
It is a compliment to Betsy Aiden who plays Toni, that by the end of the first act, you want to strangle her. She makes no attempt to soften the character, but goes full throttle with her resentments, anger and sense of victimization. Shawn Fagan plays the damaged Franz for just that, a man trying hard to reconnect and gain acceptance from a family that only remembers his problems. David Aaron Baker has a difficult job with Bo, the middle sibling, partly because the character seems rather passive. He does not seem to react to what is going on around him, but fades into the woodwork even during the angry scene between his wife and Toni.
Perhaps the clearest voice of sanity is Anna Crivelli, as River. She may be young and be a little too “new age” but as played she also seems to have the ability to remain clear-eyed. This undoubtedly is due to having no history with anyone in the family.
Diane Davis is good as Bo’s wife, Rachel. She has felt estranged from the family for years. The two teens are played by Nick Selting as Rhys, Toni’s almost adult son, and Allison Winn as Bo’s early teen daughter.
How you react to Appropriate may reveal your own family problems or lack thereof and your tolerance for watching people try to avoid hurtful truths.
It is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 888-927-7529 or visit wWestport Country Playhouse.