By Brian Pope
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The patriarch of a white (usually Southern) family dies. This tragic inevitability sets his family (primarily his adult children) on a pilgrimage to the family estate to root through and divide the assets physically and financially.
Of the middle-aged siblings returning home to mourn their losses (usually with families of their own now), one is defined by their material wealth. They usually manage the ailing parent’s money. One is defined by their day-to-day dedication to the parent. Due to a troubled home life, they have the time and emotional resources to spend real time with the ailing parent. Another (usually the youngest sibling) is defined by their past mistakes and present perceived inadequacy. The family is torn between feeling protective of them while also being resentful of how little they’ve amounted to in life and contributed to the ailing parent’s care.
Such is the lot of the Lafayette family in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, an extraordinary play that shows what happens when the kinds of classic family dramas we studied in class and see endless Broadway revivals of stop being polite and start getting real.
It didn’t strike me until I opened my program to read the Director’s Note how this University of Pittsburgh Stages production sort of operates as a spiritual sequel to the school’s 2017 production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both were staged spectacularly in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre. Both featured indelible moments that may forever be burned in my mind. Most importantly, both were directed by Ricardo Vila-Roger.
There’s no doubt that the former two similarities can be credited to the latter. Where with Our Town Vila-Roger revitalized that classic by casting black and brown actors alongside white ones (shamefully much to the chagrin of certain critics in the city), here with Appropriate he and Jacobs-Jenkins thrillingly filter those familiar tropes of the all-white family drama through modern social sensibilities and parts of American history that, unlike writers like Tennessee Williams, they, as artists and people of color, refuse to romanticize.
In the spirit of the play’s title being a homonym (“appropriate,” an adjective meaning suitable or proper; “appropriate,” a verb meaning to take or make use of without authority or right), Vila-Roger expertly navigates this three-hour play’s tricky tone. It’s not just a particular audience member’s identity and experiences that could transpose a certain moment’s inherent comedy to drama or vice versa, but that person’s literal point of view of the stage and the character whose sight line they share. His blocking and tableaus are infused with the passions of these characters and the confidence his helming of this story exudes.
As I mentioned earlier, the characters and set up for Appropriate can feel familiar. What’s not familiar is what Toni (Kelly Trumbull), Bo (Sean Cook), and Franz (Christopher Staley) have to unpack when they start to pack up their dead father’s possessions. The Lafayette family wishes they had skeletons in their closets. That would be much easier to grapple with and explain to Toni’s son Rhys (Pedar Garred), Bo’s wife Rachael (Josie O’Connell) and daughters Cassie and Ainsley (Gabriella Walko and Melissa Barbour), and Franz’s fiancée River (Arianna Starkman) than the disturbing photo album Rachael unwittingly passes on to her youngest to peruse.
M.K. Hughes’s towering set is the perfect backdrop for this human drama and has a few surprises of its own in store by the show’s end. While the volume and omnipresence Gianni Downs’s environmental sound design proved obtrusive at times, it is no match for the fireworks created by this dynamite ensemble.
Trumbull is nothing short of a revelation as Toni. If you took the terrific accent work of Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance in Fargo and combined it with the unmatched ferocity of McDormand’s other Oscar-winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you’d only scratch the surface of what Trumbull has achieved here. Her Toni is all at once exhausted, resilient, desperate, resourceful, and both fascinating and frightening to behold.
As actors, Cook and Staley support her admirably and, as Bo and Franz, they oppose her grippingly. Captivating too are the moments when their damage bubbles to the surface and brings them to their knees. Both deliver standout monologues, which is saying a lot since they both occur in the production’s explosive final half hour.
When it comes to Toni’s other antagonist Rachael, O’Connell is also perfectly cast. From her pinched expressions and physicality, to her bossy demeanor, to KJ Gilmer’s chic costuming, Rachael is clearly a force to be reckoned with. The fact that no one in her family meaningfully reckons with her only sets the stage for O’Connell to hilariously put them in their place.
Who is Appropriate appropriate for? Well, there are frank discussions and use of racial and Anti-Semitic slurs and trauma. But in the hands of a skilled director and an incredible cast, those elements are not reduced to pure shock value. They inspire questions about the legacy of this country and the American theater. Refreshingly, rather than providing all the answers or making it seem as if these questions are invalid in the first place, Appropriate and this stellar production simply show us what is accomplished by not just having an open mind but by filling that open mind with radical new ideas.
University of Pittsburgh Stages’s Appropriate runs at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre through March 1. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.
Categories: Archived Reviews