The intense, high-pitched, shrill sound of cicadas sets the tone of “Appropriate,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ humor-punctuated drama, which Live Theatre Workshop opened May 18.
Be prepared to laugh, gasp and possibly squirm in your seat and shed a tear as the conflicted Lafayette family gathers at the ancestral home about six months after the patriarch’s death. They intend to dispose of the debt-ridden former plantation home that is jam-packed with hoarded junk. The house is dilapidated and the unkempt grounds have two cemeteries: the family plot with tipped-over headstones and the slave cemetery of unmarked graves.
The patriarch’s oldest child, daughter Toni (Rhonda Hallquist), has arrived several days before the sale, fired the estate-sale specialist and taken it upon herself to organize the stuff from boxes and bedrooms. She’s bitter and bossy and has her troubled teenage son, Rhys (Adam Denoyer) in tow.
As the executor of her father’s will, she is the decision-maker and has no intention of ceding her position or authority to brother Bo (Keith Wick) or his wife Rachael (Bree Boyd). The couple have two children, Cassidy (Ella James), a curious, newly minted teenager, and Ainsley (Alexander Cramton), a younger boy who seems oblivious to the hubbub.
Younger brother Frank, now calling himself Franz (Cliff Madison), whom Toni and Bo haven’t heard from for more than 10 years, makes a surprise and unwelcome appearance. He brings his young fiancée, River (Emily Gates), who is brimming with New Age wisdom and empathetic words.
Laden with guilt and grief, the siblings dredge up past secrets and perceived mistreatments in the acrimonious reunion. Toni drove 12 hours every month to help care for her father and for many years, young Frank. The main purpose of all-business Bo, who lives in New York, seems to have been writing checks to maintain the house and their father.
Frank/Franz cleared out of the small Arkansas town with no forwarding address battling drug and alcohol addiction and after he committed a serious sexual misdeed. He claims to be in recovery and is a changed person wanting to apologize.
As the three siblings bicker and squabble, they find an album filled with disturbing images. The trio must reconcile the father they thought they knew with the racist he might have been. The slap from the past also forces them to confront their relationships with their parents, with one another and inside themselves.
“Appropriate” feels familiar. Jacobs-Jenkins said in a 2014 article in Vogue, that he borrowed from some of his favorite playwrights, like Tennessee Williams and Tracy Letts, to create the setting and resonant characters. A subtle homage to Letts’ “August: Osage County,” the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, and ugly, life-disrupting surprises seems to ribbon through “Appropriate.”
“Appropriate” also feels fresh. Unlike much of the work of the authors who inspired Jacobs-Jenkins, the play is laugh-out-loud funny. Crisp, witty one-liners roll off the actors’ tongues naturally and briskly, breaking the intensity and adding to the depth of the characters.
Hallquist allows Toni’s bitterness to bubble up and boil over. She lets the audience understand Toni’s vulnerability, fear of losing control, insecurities and her desire to love and be loved.
Wick gives Bo a nebbish quality, as a man whose power comes from his bank account. Boyd adopts a New York street accent, demonstrating that Rachael definitely is not from Arkansas. Gates projects River’s naiveté and let’s-all-get-along attitude with slow, soothing tones.
Denoyer excels as troubled teen Rhys and James gives Cassidy spunk with a pinch of defiance.
Director Glen Robert Coffman does not allow the actors to tumble into clichés. The small thrust stage is set in the home’s living room with several boxes and minimal furnishings, allowing the actors space to move and throw punches. However, the patriarch’s hoarding is not fully presented. A more cluttered set, stacked with boxes and bric-a-brac, would have added to the feeling of the house’s oppression.
“Appropriate” is a funny, fresh take on a family grappling with the complex messiness that is family.