Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one of the hottest playwrights going; two of his plays have been nominated for Pulitzers, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, and has won Obies and other awards almost too numerous to count. Luckily, we have Albany Civic and director Patrick White to stage one of his shows so we can see his work in action here in the Capital Region – and what work it is.
The Lafayette family has returned home to clean out their recently deceased father’s Arkansas plantation house so both the home and contents can be sold. The eldest (and only daughter) Toni (Jessica “J.J.” Paul) and her son Rhys (James Bonura) arrive first to do the lion’s share of the work; middle child Bo (Matthew Side) and his family – wife Rachael (Josephine O’Connor) and children Cassidy (Audrey Vermilyea) and Ainsley (Jeremiah Mangini) – are to arrive just before the sale. Not expected, but still appearing, is youngest son Frank (Jude Washock) and his fiancée River (Tara Dedie). Tensions run high from the first: their father was a hoarder so the house is a wreck, everyone is seething over something, money issues loom large and old – and new – family secrets start coming out.
There is nothing like a family gathering to bring out the absolute worst in people, and here are people at their absolute worst. What is stunning to me about Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing is how many levels there are, and how deftly he handles them all; there’s racism and anti-Semitism throughout this dysfunctional family, and just when you’ve almost forgotten those plot points, they pop up again in the most shattering of ways – but there’s so much else going on, so many other issues, that you’re somehow able to put them to the side until they insidiously crop up again. It’s a commentary on what we’re able to forgive of those we love, and what we’re not, among many other things, and the writing is breathtakingly good.
The cast isn’t as strong as they need to be for a piece this hard-hitting; some actors are better than others at this very difficult material, but a more skillful group would truly have elevated the show to another level. O’Connor stands out, especially in her speech as she’s packing to leave; Washock’s monologue about being reborn after a dip in a somewhat dubious pond was also quite moving.
My hat is off for both John Sutton’s set design and Debra Bercier and Portia Hubert’s work on props; a living room of a hoarder has to have put up red flags for this group, but the end result was stunning. White has a special knack for making set changes part of the show; the two here that were set to music were crowd-stoppers.
Go experience this show to immerse yourself in Jacobs-Jenkins’ words; I’m predicting in 20 years, we’re going to be talking about him like we talk about Albee, Williams, Miller, and O’Neill, and how lucky are we to be able to say we saw his work on his way up.
“Appropriate,” Albany Civic Theater; 235 Second Ave., Albany; through May 20; $18-$10; Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission; (518) 462-1297; http://www.albanycivictheater.org/