In Appropriate, lifetimes of simmering sibling rivalries and just plain enmities come to a hate-filled head in a stage scenario we’ve seen countless times before: family members gathering to disperse possessions, settle differences, and moneygrub for newfound treasures following the death of a parent.
But you’ve never seen it like this.
Of the half-dozen full-length plays in this year’s Humana Festival, Appropriate is the longest, has the largest cast, has the most complex set design, and deals with the most disturbing subject matter: uncomfortable revelations about all sorts of bad behavior in a family whose members have been struggling with private problems and public disgraces for generations.
The nastiness begins moments into the show, and continues unabated for two hours (including a much-appreciated intermission). There are times when every character is yelling at once. There are long, loud outbursts when various ones of them has had enough. The central figures are two brothers and a sister who have all had deep (though not necessarily fond) connections to their father but haven’t actually kept in touch with each other very well. When the youngest sib, Franz (formerly known as Frank) lets himself into the family’s old Arkansas plantation home at the opening of the play, he hasn’t been in touch with his other brother Bo (Larry Bull) or their older, and permanently pissed-off sis Toni (Jordan Baker) in a decade, having run out on the old man they all call “our father” (spiritual underpinning presumably intentional) and disappeared to the West Coast.
You’re led to believe that Franz is the protagonist of this endlessly antagonistic play, but then it turns out to be the bitter and belittling Toni, and then basically everyone else in the eight-person cast gets a shot. Bo’s wife Rachael (Amy Lynn Stewart), Franz’s young fiancée (Natalie Kuhn) and three child characters generally watch on in dismay, but also get their licks. This rather democratic approach, though not always believable–characters who can’t stop interrupting in some scenes seem perfectly content to stand patiently through lengthy monologues in others–has the musty bad-mood odor of Long Day’s Journey Into Night or August: Osage County. The onslaught of sins and slanders and slugfests certainly keeps you guessing until Appropriate‘s homewrecker of an ending.
Gary Griffin directs this excoriating script with a briskness that turns weirdly. Casual at times; you don’t know quite where to look. Jordan Baker as Toni doesn’t end up dominating the plot he way you think she will, but she certainly sets a pace and tone an volume that the others can’t match (and shouldn’t want to). The sound-design chorus of chirping cicadas only adds to the relentless din of a decaying society.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins deals extensively with issues of racism, abuse, Southern hostilities of the early 20th century, anger management, forgiveness, salvation, prodigal sons, shocking disclosures and perverse value systems. Appropriate goes so many places that you expect some large interlocking puzzle is being worked. But Jacobs-Jenkins isn’t clarifying; he’s purposefully obfuscating. He’s not setting up situations that can honestly be resolved. He’s illustrating, and condemning, a whole culture, a whole way of existing.
Its shocks and twists can be exhausting, but Appropriate is appropriately grand in its critique of communications breakdowns and appalling cultural legacies in the modern age. Brace yourself for an acid-soaked housecleaning.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Gary Griffin. Scenic Designer: Antje Ellermann. Costume Designer: Connie Furr-Soloman. Lighting Designer: Matt Frey. Sound Designer: Bray Poor. Stage Manager: Michael D. Domue. Dramaturgs: Amy Wegener, Janice Paran. Casting: Stephanie Klapper.
Through April 7 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium of the Actors Theatre of Louisville.