Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play, “Appropriate,” at Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd, appropriates—according to Jacob-Jenkins himself—numerous elements of the great American dysfunctional family drama. It’s impossible not to see in this work elements of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” along with many others.
At its best, “Appropriate” is a ghost story, but those earlier plays, with their wholly original characters and poetic language, haunt the script more powerfully than anything we see on the stage. In “Appropriate,” the fascinating and frightening elements we occasionally glimpse get lost in a thicket of plot contrivances, tangents, and ultimately tiresome fights.
After their father’s death, three siblings gather to sell the family’s crumbling Arkansas plantation home, the grounds of which contain not one ancient graveyard but two, the second containing some of the ghosts in the play. Naturally, each of the siblings has a different vision of this father, and a different notion, too, about how best to deal with the sinister secrets that emerge, in the form of gruesome artifacts, as the family goes through Dad’s belongings.
An angry and bitter Toni (Betsy Aiden)—the unwilling executrix of the estate and the divorced mother of a sullen, recalcitrant teenage son, Rhys (Nick Selting)—feels closest to her father and is least willing to imagine him in anything but a benevolent light. Her brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), is consumed with financial worries, which eventually and shockingly collide with the disturbing objects. On the other hand, black sheep Franz—formerly known as Frank— (Shawn Fagan) is less interested in what’s been found than he is in seeking his family’s forgiveness and thus starting a new life, lovingly coached by River (Anna Crivelli), his new-age sweetheart.
Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) has personal reasons to be angry with the paterfamilias, and in terms of the dark discoveries, she wants alternately to protect her children, the young Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and the thirteen year old Cassidy (Allison Winn), and to educate them.
Each of the actors is well cast and beautifully directed by David Kennedy except for Aiden as Toni. This character is nearly impossible to like as written, and yet she is central to the action, onstage in almost every scene, and crucial to the play’s emotional stakes. Thus, the actress who plays her must, without pulling punches, bring something to the role, no matter how indefinable, that earns our sympathy. Kennedy has not helped Aiden to do this, and as a result, the nearly three hour running time seems even longer than it is.
Where this production of “Appropriate” succeeds most thoroughly is in the set (Andrew Boyce), lighting (Matthew Richards), and sound design (Fitz Patton). As the curtain rises, we see a completely realistic, dilapidated living room, replete with a looming circular staircase, a ceiling with exposed joists, and, later on, huge shadows of any two people who are conflicting in a scene. Between scenes and acts, cicadas hum, loudly and for a daringly long time, oppressing us with an ominous, unseen presence.
By contrast, every character sees, in one way or another, the ghosts that populate Jacob-Jenkins’ play and that suggest a shameful, horrifying past. Yet only at fleeting moments does the script invite us to contemplate how this cursed past could either teach or destroy this family. Instead, the ghosts become less and less central, and the family, as in so many lesser plays in this genre, uses its own bitter ammunition to destroy itself.
“Appropriate” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2. For tickets, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.