The word “Appropriate” can have several different meanings depending on its use. It’s use in the title of this 2014 Obie Award winning play currently at Westport Country Playhouse (WCP) may seem puzzling, but as this absorbing, play progresses, you may come to realize that the writer, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is expressing his observation of dysfunctional, human behavior and the cycle of life, and comparing it to the non-judgmental laws of Nature. Whether you agree that Jenkins made his point effectively and/or whether the play was marred by overkill, that’s another question to be answered later.
Regarding the cycle of life and human nature, Jenkins, who happens to be black, deliberately focuses on an all-white, dysfunctional family that is forced to face its southern legacy. While the siblings meet to dispose of their deceased father’s former plantation, accusations and animosity towards each other boil over. Among numerous family secrets, an album of slave photos parallel the greater turmoil of our society today.
The play’s many themes and actions bring us back to the several meanings of the title word, “Appropriate” which depends on the emphasis of the syllables: “To take something without authority” (such as looking at or taking possession of the family’s Album) or, “To do something that is fitting” (To reflect upon our nation’s current conflict over the removal of the Southern, Civil War leader’s statues). The unending cycle of life itself is represented by the mating sounds of cicadas – insects that reappear every 13 years in Arkansas where this play is set. This effective metaphor can be associated with either hope for a new beginning, or despair over the thought that lower life forms may someday take over the world.
Although there is considerable screaming and fighting throughout, this absorbing work is geared to touch the viewer on many levels. We have “Toni” (Betsy Aidem) the unhappy divorcee and executor of her father’s will. She feels that she is entitled to take full charge of everything concerning the demise of the old mansion because she was “… the one who was always there” when her aging parents needed her. Although her brother “Bo” (David Aaron Baker) lived far away, he feels that he is just as worthy to “appropriate” his father’s assets, since he took care of the estate’s finances. Then we have the third sibling, “Franz” (Shawn Fagan). Franz was never out of trouble but is trying to start a new life with his hippy girlfriend who is simply called “River” (Anna Crivelli). Franz wants his family’s acceptance and reconciliation with his past. Ironically, this Prodigal Son’s mystical girlfriend is the peacemaker and the most sensible member of the group. River can be likened to the Biblical, Jordan or the Mississippi, which continues to flow despite the historical conflicts that took place along its banks – think of “Ole Man River.”
Following this symbolic, Biblical theme and the New Testament’s concept of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, Franz tries to cleanse himself of his past sins in the polluted, nearby pond (a metaphor of our present day society) and when he returns, he effectively emulates Jesus Christ on the cross with his out-stretched arms. However, the sinner impresses no one by his pleas for acceptance except his forgiving, pregnant, “River.” The fact that she is pregnant, hints at the possibility of another chance at the good life (as does the cicadas haunting theme). The contrast of characters is emphasized when it is suggested that Toni be more forgiving towards her siblings, and she yells back defiantly, “… I’m not the forgiving police.” In other words, she has her own troubles and is not in charge of forgiving the entire world for its misery.
Stirring the pot of family secrets, individual prides, as well as prejudices, is the discovery of a shameful photo album concerning the plantation’s lynched slaves. Who would keep such a dreadful relic? Was their father, a respected judge headed for the Supreme Court, a racist? “Rachel” (Diane Davis), Bo’s Jewish wife, adds fuel to the family’s firestorm over their repressed prejudices. While individual cover-ups ensue, the couple’s young son, “Ainsley,” (Christian Michael Camporin) lightens the mood by continually running by with his toy plane – thus, innocently cutting through the family’s nonsense. There is some ray of hope left for reconciliation and perhaps the future of Mankind as Cousin “Cassie,” (Bo’s and Rachael’s daughter) develops a crush on her cousin “Rhys” (Toni’s bigoted, adolescent son). The two hug in a fond farewell before her family departs for the melting pot of New York City. Finally,
Bo’s poignant lament at not knowing why he is so upset upon leaving his decaying, ancestral home appropriately sums up, in one, single statement, the many reasons to see this play.
“Appropriate,” reminds me of a Tchaikovsky symphony in that many of his masterpieces contain several, popular, Russian folk themes, and yet, it seems as if the composer was never satisfied with just one ending. In Jenkins, we have a masterful playwright, several plot themes taken from famous, American playwrights, and a series of symbolic endings, either one of which could have been the most powerful.
At WCP, the aforementioned overkill begins and ends in darkness with the sounds of chirping cicadas. In fact, the overture to this masterpiece was so long, that I began to squirm and feel itchy. Others began to laugh uncomfortably. If that was its purpose, Sound Designer/Composer, Fritz Patton certainly succeeded. The chirping was also interspersed between the play’s three acts which were entitled: “The Book of Revelations,” “Walpurgisnacht” (Witches Sabbath) and “The Book of Genesis.” What was most amusing about the sound effects took place near the end of the play. Some impatient folks, who were turned off by the overlong chirping, began to leave their seats in the front of the house, figuring they would beat the crowd at the Opening Night refreshment tables. To their chagrin, the play hadn’t ended yet and they quickly returned to witness the old mansion disintegrating over time — nail by nail, piece by piece, and amidst the dust and doom were scattered items that almost rolled off the stage and onto the front row patron’s laps.
David Kennedy who received Connecticut Critics Circle award for “Outstanding Production and Outstanding Director for, “The Invisible Hand,” intelligently directs the individual characters in “Appropriate.” The imaginative set is attributed to Andrew Boyce.
Warning: The language used is not recommended for young children.
Plays to September 2 Tickets: 303-227-4177
This review appears in On CT & NY Theatre August/2017