For about $200 a night you can rent a room in a restored anti-bellum mansion in Southeast Arkansas and do your own investigative sight-seeing in the nearby countryside. But for considerably less you could go instead to the current production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at the Westport Country Playhouse and visit an anti-bellum mansion that never quite got restored but provides plenty of investigative sight-seeing right here and now.
“Appropriate” is a play about a family you don’t want to be part of. Six months after their father’s death, three siblings gather to sell off the ancestral old mansion he’d gone back to after time spent in Washington DC. They had all lived there as youngsters. Franz (Shawn Fagan) arrives from Portland, OR, with his girlfriend, River (Anna Crivelli). Toni (Betsy Aidern), the first-born, is there with her son, Rhys (a nimble Nick Selting), and the New York contingent is coming too. That’s Bo (David Aaron Baker), his wife Rachael (Diane Davis), and their kids, Cassie (Allison Winn) and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin). It’s not at all clear who’s running things. Toni has been sorting through stuff preparing for an estate sale, and may have canceled a contract that Bo made with an agent. The whole property is due for an auction tomorrow. That seems to be why they’re all here. And no one is being friendly. River makes vegan pancakes for breakfast. Nobody wants them. Eight-year-old Ainsley is zooming through the house, and through people, holding a small helicopter or plane that naturally requires him to move it with adequate velocity. When Rachael finally grabs him and seats him near the library table, he picks up and pages through a scrapbook of pictures that are way too salacious for his gentle eyes to be looking at. Pictures of naked dead black persons, hanging, as if lynched. The book snaps shut. Who knows why it’s there? Or where it came from? Not, surely, from Daddy. Maybe a friend or stranger left it here. Maybe…
Meanwhile Toni is erupting with invective about how if there’s any money from the sale of the house Franks’s (Franz is his new changed name) share should be decreased by the $100,000 their father spent trying to get him into recovery, and her share should be increased because she took care of the old man during his last years. Bo tries to mediate a little but he hasn’t been near the house for ten years, and Rachael adds that’s because she overheard Daddy complaining to a friend that Bo was here “with his Jew-bride” when they came as newlyweds. And when Franz, urged on by River, in a really touching scene, begs them to listen to his prepared apology as part of his twelve-step Recovery, Bo decides to accept it, but Toni screams ‘no way.’
There is so much more hidden in this play. Toni is an angry spark-plug that never stops firing. But she also is the first to articulate the false premise that Daddy was a sweet and innocent southern gentleman. She dismisses the scrapbook’s significance, and asks Cassie to run it out and put it in her car, where it will be safe until she deals with it tomorrow. Keep your eye on the book, however. Cassie keeps it inside, where it takes on a life of its own, like a pointer on the Quiji Board. From Cassie, to Rhys, to Franz. Leading with its own emotional power. It would be a spoiler to tell you more, so I won’t, except to say that when you hear Franz (Fagan) describe it in an excellent piece of stagecraft, you’ll be spellbound.
If there are spirits of past generations present – they are hinted at by the presence of two graveyards: one with fallen stones and then the other one, the slave graveyard, without stones but depressions in the soil – they resonate in all the words and denial the family professes. (It seems ironic that Jacobs-Jenkins’ play opened in Westport while the painful Nazi drama was playing in Charlottesville). It is young Ainsley (Camporin) of course, who uncovers the awesome clincher while he is rummaging around in Grandpa’s study.
The scenes are separated by listening to the overwhelming singing of hundreds of cicadas in the darkness – a mysterious chorus that comes around again in cycles some years apart. It underscores the insistence that what goes around comes around, and the pain involved in not getting resolutions to work out. “Appropriate” is a superb attempt to show that the present cannot wish away the past, or wash it clean without a great amount of tangles.
David Kennedy’s direction is strong. The set, by Andrew Boyce, is exquisite. Matthew Richard’s lighting design, which casts shadows as if from candlelight, is amazing, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, which includes, of course, the cicadas, is wonderful. The great fight scene, which I haven’t mentioned, is beautifully intense, and seems to have been choreographed by Michael Rossmy.
Do yourselves the favor of not letting this one slip by you. It is great theatre and well worth the several hours you’ll spend watching it and the days you’ll be reworking it in your heads after it’s gone by.
Information at www.westportplayhouse.org, or call 203-227-4177 for tickets.