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The SpeakEasy Stage Company explores a host of issues related to family and identity with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ explosive, Obie-winning play ”appropriate.”
Perhaps “explosive,” isn’t the best way to describe the play, though. “Appropriate” feels more intensely inward-directed, too cleverly deliberate in the way Jacobs-Jenkins almost magically takes hold of nebulous, subtly interconnected themes and crystallizes them into an absorbing, and often quite funny, family drama. If anything, “appropriate” seems implosive.
The idea of things falling in upon themselves does seem to be a touchstone here, be they families or ancestral manses. Three siblings arrive at their late father’s home in Arkansas to sort out his effects, auction off what they can salvage and sell the house, which is in a state of extreme disrepair. The place was once a fine plantation house, and the property has been in the family for generations; there’s even a graveyard nearby where their ancestors are buried. Farther off, there’s a collection of unmarked graves where slaves were interred. Clearly there are ghosts of all sorts here, some of them residential and some having arrived with the family members.
Toni (Melinda Lopez) is the eldest. She’s taken the lead in preparing the house and effects for disposal, although it means frequent 12-hour car trips to get out to the place. Her father’s death is one more crisis she’s dealing with, in addition to the fallout from a trifecta of personal catastrophes that include a divorce, the collapse of her career and some serious trouble her teenaged son Rhys (Eliott Purcell) has gotten into with the law.
Middle child Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) lives in a distant city with his sometimes-strident, always briskly put-together wife Rachael (Tamara Hickey) and their children. Bo has been the moneyman, shelling out during their father’s decline and, after his death, for a caretaker to look after the house and grounds.
Youngest brother Frank — a.k.a. Franz (Alex Pollock) — has been MIA for a couple of years, living in Oregon with a younger girlfriend, the new agey River (Ashley Risteen), while he gets himself on the wagon and, it seems, through a 12-step recovery process. (Franz is also the go-to scapegoat and general whipping boy, held at arm’s length and viewed with disgust and distrust by the others for a serious mistake committed in his youth.)
Relations among the siblings have crumbled to a state not unlike that of the house, and all three have feelings of being owed something for time lost, considerable financial drain or years of misery endured. Money is the most obvious currency they might seek as recompense, but as their arguments intensify you expect them to start going after pounds of flesh.
One flashpoint for their disagreements is how they each view their father. To Toni, he was a kind and neglected man, but to Bo he registered as a distant figure of authority. Franz sees him as having been mentally ill, a bipolar hoarder who was hard to live with and impossible to please. Rachael, too, weighs in, relating that in the deceased she encountered a racist and anti-Semite.
The discovery of a strange heirloom — a photo album filled with grotesque, disturbing photos — impacts everyone’s views of the family patriarch. Was this a sick keepsake? Or did it come into their father’s possession by random happenstance, like so much of the junk he accumulated? The album turns into an object of fascination, but also repulsion, circulating among the characters like a hot potato. Curiously, though, wherever it lands the album sparks meaningful conversation. As the characters interact one-on-one, they show sides of themselves that not everyone in the group gets to see. This bizarre artifact — wherever it came from — might or might not have significant monetary worth, but its real value lies in the uncomfortable truths it forces the clan to examine about themselves and each other.
M. Bevin O’Gara directs, and imbues the production with the same sort of ringing authenticity that characterized her work on earlier SpeakEasy Stage Company productions like “Tribes” and “Clybourne Park.” Scenic designer Cristina Todesco continues her run of top-flight work with a set that serves as a perfect backdrop and environment to the story; taking in the set’s exposed wooden slats and wobbly staircase balustrade, you can practically feel the humidity of a hot Southern summer night. Eerie rural darkness and finely distinguished types of light for different times of day play a crucial role in this production, and Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting design nails it.
The drone of cicadas — literal and implied in the soundtrack provided by Arshan Gailus on the sound design — underscore the point the playwright makes as his characters reflect on the life cycle of the insects and the thrum with which they fill the night air. Secrets, like cicadas (or human beings long ago enslaved, or other horrors lost to time), can vanish into the earth for years on end, but eventually they will re-surface, and they will be heard.
The performance attended by the press showed a few rough edges. A comedic, climactic brawl — the one you knew from the start was brewing — had yet to gel. Fight choreographer Angie Jepson puts the set’s crowded environs to good use, having the actors chase each other around and hop over furnishings in a wall-to-wall eruption of chaos, but the timing had yet to be perfected and the full effect was not yet achieved. The acting was generally good, but hadn’t quite hit its stride yet on an ensemble level.
In a way, that’s reassuring: It’s nice to come away with the expectation that a play will be getting sharper and tighter in the near future, at least when that play is about the unknowable past and its destabilizing effects on the illusions we use to shore ourselves up in the present.
Ghosts may hover around the margins of this play, but it’s less the spirits of the departed that haunt us than our memories of them; more haunting still are the things we suspect, and the murky, half-understood histories that refuse to come fully into focus. “appropriate” raises hackles, but it also stirs the heart.
SpeakEasy’s production of “appropriate” continues at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 10.
Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.