Is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning APPROPRIATE just another play about a dysfunctional family, with siblings fighting for their share of the estate after the recent death of their father? Or is there something darker and more significant behind its vitriol?
A glance at the program provided by the Albany Civic Theater gives us clues: the play’s title can be used both as an adjective (“suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion”) or a verb: (“to take possession of”, to steal, to seize). Indeed the playwright admits, in a 2014 interview with Mark Guiducci in VOGUE, that he “stole” from other family dramas (such as AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) to create APPROPRIATE, which played at the Signature Theatre Company that year. But Jacob-Jenkins adds, “I also knew that my being black would automatically make anything I ever write be about race.” The program describes the set as “the living room of a former plantation home in Southeast Arkansas,”and it takes only a few moments for us to learn that there are slaves buried in graveyards next to the house. An old photograph album of “dead black people,” apparently lynch victims, figures prominently in the plot.
The play follows the hostilities, both verbal and physical, of three siblings: Toni (Jessica [J.J.] Paul), the eldest, executrix of her father’s estate, Bo (Matthew Side), her wealthy New York brother, and Frank (or Franz) [Jude Washock], the youngest, who has not been seen for ten years. In the course of their various confrontations, each is given an opportunity to bemoan the misery they suffered and to lay claim to their inheritance. At times a black comedy, at others deadly serious, this over-the-top free-for-all can be exhausting for the audience as well as the actors, a visual and auditory embodiment of the second act title: WALPURGISNACHT. Paul’s shrill delivery makes it difficult to sympathize with her, despite her grief at losing her father and her insecurity as a mother. Side’s quieter suffering finally does move us toward the end of the play, and Washock’s journey is depicted effectively, as the one-time alcoholic, drug-addicted pedophile seeks to rejoin the family. His transformation is accomplished with the help of his shaman-loving, reiki-practicing girlfriend, River (Tara Dedie, whose performance sharpens as the play progresses.)
The cast’s most professional and convincing actor, Josephine O’Connor, plays Bo’s Jewish wife Rachael. O’Connor is as adept at comedy as she is forceful in combating the anti-semitism that has been leveled against her. Teenagers Cassidy (Audrey Vermilyea), daughter of Bo and Rachael, and Rhys (James Bonura), son of Toni, embody the only positive family connection, though both young actors speak so softly that back-row spectators cannot hear them. Cassidy’s little brother Ainsley (an adorable Jeremiah Mangini), completes the cast.
Director Patrick White does yeoman’s work here, moving the play and the actors at a brisk pace while choreographing a shocking fight scene in the second act. With each act beginning in darkness, flashlights are used to great effect, perhaps symbolizing the characters’ search for resolution. Forgoing with stagehands, White has the actors wearing miner’s head lamps at the opening of the second act, as they circle the stage to musical accompaniment in a choreographed set change, as they empty the living room of most of its furniture and clutter. A wonderful touch!
Congratulations go to the whole design team—Set Designer John Sutton creates a two-level living room in complete disarray, filled with newspapers, boxes, stuffed plastic bags and dirty linens. Sutton provides several entrances, including a double window through which actors can climb, as well as an impressive series of unexpected events after the family leaves the house for good. Lighting Designer Edward Bablin keeps the stage in darkness when necessary while enabling the actors to find their way around the set, and at other times lights the stage beautifully in a natural, even supernatural way. Sound Designer Jim Dick sets the appropriate mood with the eerie sound of cicadas as the audience enters, and then adds southern music, including fiddles, percussion and harmonicas throughout and during intermission. Costume Designer Beth Ruman finds just the right clothing to fit each character, especially the hippy clothing worn by River.
Ultimately this tortured family has been irrevocably damaged by a racist society. That legacy, it seems is still with us. Thanks to Albany Civic Theater for their willingness to produce challenging plays of this caliber.
APPROPRIATE runs from May 4—May 20, 2018 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm at the Albany Civic Theater. Tickets may be purchased online at albanycivictheater.org or call 518-462-1297.
Albany Civic Theater presents APPROPRIATE by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Patrick White. Cast: Frank/Franz (Jude Washock), River (Tara Dedie), Rhys (James Bonura), Toni (Jessica [J.J.] Paul), Rachael (Josephine O’ Connor), Bo (Matthew Side), Ainsley (Jeremiah Mangini), Cassidy (Audrey Vermilyea). Set Design: John Sutton; Costume Design: Beth Ruman; Lighting Design: Edward Bablin; Sound Design: Jim Dick; Stage Manager: John J. Quinan.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission; Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Avenue, Albany, NY; Fridays through Sundays from 5/4/18; closing 5/20/18. http://www.albanycivictheater.org/