Families, families, families, love them or hate them, where would we be without them? Add death of a patriarch to the mix and you have a volatile substance, fodder for many a playwright and still the stories have the power to transfix.
Papa Lafayette died 6 months ago in the Arkansas plantation house his family had owned for five generations. It is the night before the house and its contents are to be auctioned off. The three far-flung Lafayette siblings are under the same roof for the first time in many many years. Franz, né (Robert Beitzel) and his girlfriend, River (Zarah Mahler) have just arrived in the dark, through the window. It seems he has been in Oregon and estranged from the family for 10 years. There are issues; there was bad behavior. He has just learned about his father’s death. Recently divorced, and mega-embittered, big sister Toni (Melora Hardin) is enraged he is even there. She lives twelve hours away — as she repeatedly reminds her brothers. She bore the responsibility for her father’s last years. Brother Bo (David Bishins), his wife, Rachael (Missy Yager), and two children arrive from New York. This is not the loving picture of family values certain candidates want us to hold in our imaginations. But it is the stuff from which gritty pictures that ring of truth are woven.
Papa was a packrat, as Mimi Lien’s detailed set of an old plantation house aptly illustrates. The problem with not cleaning your closets is that you miss the opportunity to edit your life, leaving open the reality that your family — or whomever is the cleanup crew — will find the truth or script its own version of your history. It is pretty clear that Papa was not all that a Harvard Law School graduate, “almost a judge.” would connote. I’ll not destroy the experience by spilling the beans on what was found. I strongly urge you to avoid reading reviews that cannot resist giving it away. Suffice it to say, little love is lost in the Lafayette household and no one wants to squarely face the complexities of his ghost. Each family member is the center of his own story and there is little room for the layers of one another’s lives.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins wrote “Appropriate” in his late twenties. He is black, the Lafayettes are white. Neither has impeded his observations or insights. “Appropriate,” as staged in three acts, is constructed much like a symphony. Act I is powerful and dramatic, Act II is an adagio, and Act III brings resolution of sorts and a coda. As the program indicates only two acts, it is not clear if this was a directorial decision or if it was written as three. Which ever is true, some editing would help the overly long production.
Director Eric Ting has opted for amplification. The action takes place in a year (which year, unspecified; given the references to the internet and Instagram , a recent year) of the cicadas. Ting introduces each act, and punctuates for each scene, with an over-amplified recording of the insects. Tony’s multiple soliloquies, and Rachael’s tantrum’s of moral outrage are delivered so forcefully they are weakened. Franz’s AA motivated, and carefully scripted, apology to his siblings and his self-baptism in the plantation lake suffers from similar directorial amplification.
While “Appropriate” is not a perfect play, it is definitely worth seeing. Jacobs-Jenkins is destined to become an important theatrical voice and, reservations aside, it is a story that reverberates through the ages. “Each unhappy family is different in its own way.” Therein lies the tale.