Review: “Appropriate”

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Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Dec. 8
Tickets: $20-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

Everyone behaves inappropriately in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “Appropriate” at Victory Gardens Theater, and they also attempt to appropriate evidence of a horrific history for their own ends. The playwright, too, could be accused of appropriation: He’s a young African American who has chosen to write about a dysfunctional Caucasian family with roots in the South.

On the other hand, one of the strengths of the play is how well it captures the arguably universal dynamics of deep-seeded familial discord, especially under Gary Griffin’s savvy direction. And part of Jacobs-Jenkins’ message seems to be that the legacy of racism is toxic for all Americans – victims, perpetrators and their descendants.

The catalyst for the eruption of past and present secrets and resentments is the summertime gathering (13-year cicadas are symbolically singing loudly) of the Lafayette clan at the deceased patriarch’s crumbling plantation home in southeast Arkansas. In a familiar theatrical scenario, they’ve come to dispose of the old hoarder’s possessions, as well as to auction off the house, which is deeply in debt thanks to a loan for a never-realized plan to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast.

Apparently, that plan failed because it was left in the hands of the deeply disturbed (or worse) dad and Frank (Stef Tovar), the youngest of the three siblings, who’d moved from Washington, D.C., to escape his criminal past molesting underage girls, which he attributes to his alcoholism at the time. Out of touch with the others for a decade, he arrives from Oregon unexpectedly, calling himself “Franz,” desperately seeking redemption, and bringing along his much younger girlfriend, Trisha (Leah Karpel), who uses the name “River,” spouts New Age aphorisms and lights candles to ward off evil spirits.

The sparks start to fly when Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald), the eldest and executor of the estate, learns of Frank’s presence and assumes he’s there to get his share. Divorced and living in Atlanta with her teenage son, Rhys (Alex Stage), who has problems of his own, she’s seething with anger over having to be her dying father’s caretaker and a host of other wrongs for which she blames her brothers and ex-husband. The middle sibling, Bo (Keith Kupferer), a successful New York businessman, tries to mediate, but his life-long rivalry with Toni and contempt for her lack of financial acumen quickly become  apparent. He’s accompanied his wife, Rachael (Cheryl Graeff), who it turns out is still smarting over old man Lafayette’s anti-Semitism, and his two children, know-it-all 13-year-old  Cassidy (Jennifer Baker), who considers herself almost an adult, and her rambunctious younger brother (Mark Page alternating with Theo Moss).

As tensions rise, fueled by Toni’s bitter recriminations and refusal to forgive, Bo’s son inadvertently discovers an antique album filled with photos of lynchings, murdered slaves and dismembered bodies. Faced with the likelihood of dad’s old-style Southern racism – supported by other things they find – each person reacts differently, raising a all sorts of questions. Toni is in complete denial that her beloved father could have been guilty. Rachael is appalled that her children should see such a thing, while Cassidy is curious about this facet of history and shares her thoughts with River and Rhys. Though nobody seems to be able to do it, Bo wants the album destroyed, until he learns it’s probably worth enough to solve their financial problems. River can’t bring herself to destroy it out of respect for the dead. Toni suggests giving it to a museum, but her spiteful motive is to prevent Frank from getting any money. At one point, furious arguments degenerate into fisticuffs with all involved ending up sprawled on the floor.
To Jacobs-Jenkins credit, he never becomes didactic or preachy about the issues, nor does he provide any easy answers. Instead, he lets the characters reveal themselves in all their complexity, and thanks to Griffin and the talented cast, they’re fascinating even when they’re reprehensible. That’s especially true of Fitzgerald’s Toni, who’s a screaming harridan one minute, oddly sympathetic in her vulnerability the next, and finally icy cold in her rejection of Frank and Bo. Graeff’s Rachael, whose veneer of agreeability quickly dissolves, is nowhere near her match, and her screeching and shrillness become tiresome long before she admits she hates herself for being a harpie.

While we never really find out if Tovar’s interestingly ambiguous Frank is the changed man he claims to be, the younger generation – Rhys, Cassidy and River – get the most sympathetic treatment, and Karpel deserves special praise for preventing River from being a caricature. That leaves Kupferer’s Bo, who for me, was responsible for the evening’s most emotionally true moment – sitting on the couch and breaking down when he realizes that he can’t fix what’s gone wrong.

Unfortunately, that’s followed by a misguided attempt at visual drama: a series of blackouts showing the mansion literally falling apart. In general, Yu Shibigaki’s set design gets the clutter right with the help of prop designer Jesse Gaffney, but the living room looks more like it’s in a snug, if rundown, suburban home than a grand Southern plantation house. Jesse Klug’s lighting adds the necessary time shifts, Janice Pytel’s costumes are apropos with a touch of wit and Chris LaPorte’s sound design makes the cicadas sing.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ script could use some trimming, especially of the longer speeches and exchanges, but – influenced I think by Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” – he’s given us a sample of Southern Gothic with family battles we all can recognize.