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Theatre Review: Available Light’s Hilarious and Painful ‘Appropriate’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Available Light’s Hilarious and Painful ‘Appropriate’
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Happy families have no place on the stage since King Lear and before. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, opening this weekend in a visceral, hot-blooded production directed by David J. Glover for Available Light, skewers the contemporary model of toxic-family play, sets it on fire, and illuminates ugly truths about the human condition from a fresh, surprising angle.

Appropriate bursts out of the Arkansas darkness as a garish, day-glo parody of the form popularized by Tennessee Williams and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and most recently acclaimed in August: Osage County. Three children return to the childhood home of their dead patriarch the day before its auction — Toni Lafayette (Kim Garrison Hopcraft) and adult son Rhys (John Connor); Beau Lafayette (Philip Hickman), with his wife Rachel (Beth Josephsen), a 13-year-old daughter Cassie (Sarah Wilson) and 8-year-old son Ainsley (Gabriel Stauffer); and prodigal son/black sheep Frank (Jordan Fehr) with girlfriend River (Baylee Sheets). Things are already crumbling, and they get worse with alarming speed, in ways you expect from a play about the American south and ways that surprise.

Jacobs-Jenkins and Glover understand the emotional charge in a play where decorum is a veneer burned off so everyone says exactly what they think at top volume. They know this kind of play well enough to indulge and subvert those voyeuristic schadenfreude pleasures in the best way. The obviousness of the archetypes is almost uncomfortable to the modern ear for the first 20 minutes, enough of a calculated rope-a-dope the viewer is being dragged through the rapids on flesh-ripping tenterhooks before we can brace ourselves.

Kim Garrison Hopcraft is Toni, in a performance that will burn itself on the back of your skull. She takes a character we’ve seen many times before: the long-suffering would-be matriarch (their mother died more than 20 years before their father) whose deferral of her own dreams and thankless emotional labor has turned her cruel; and she finds an indelible person in it.

When this kind of character appears — especially these days — the material hates her and plays her for laughs. Not in Appropriate. The play and the performance don’t let her off the hook for the horrific things she says and does but also neither soft-pedals her into some moral equivalency tapioca.

She leads the cast into wild comic set-pieces that remind us how not funny they are while we’re laughing — a virtuosic performance without a drop of sentimentality that can knock the air out of your lungs.

While Toni’s been handling the emotional labor, Beau has covered more of the share of the financial burden. Hickman plays Beau as a sparking wire; in constant, jagged motion belying a deep rage and a love buried deeper, bulging to keep from crumbling.

Josephsen plays Rachel as the constant outsider, a New York caricature who always resented not being welcomed with open arms and says at one point, “I hate the person I become when I’m around your people.” Their chemistry shows off an ineffable love between the two, glimmers of sweetness in the churning cesspool of everything else, but the play doesn’t let them off easy either; they can leave and they have. Wilson’s Cassidy is spectacular, the precocious-trouble child but, like everything else, from a perspective we don’t expect.

Jordan Fehr’s recovering addict Frank (now calling himself Franz) carries one of the themes of the play on his back and dances with it, somersaults over it and plays fire tricks with it, all with jaw-dropping lightness: can people ever meaningfully change? Is “making amends” ever possible? Are there some things so horrible redemption is rightfully out of reach?

Frank returns a hollowed man trying to kindle the smallest spark he’s found in himself after so many years. He discovers how much he hasn’t faced but keeps clawing at it, in sometimes absurd, hilarious gestures.

The vibration between Fehr’s Frank and Connor’s Rhys drives home the unintended consequences of Frank’s dissolute time. Fehr packs as much heartbreak in an exchange where he asks Rhys if he seems different and then has to recover from “Not really” as though he’d just had an uppercut.

There isn’t a bad performance here, everyone involved knows the right amount of nuance and volume needed in this space where the axes of shock-value humor, psychological satire, and chilling indictment collide.

Appropriate is long — two-and-a-half hours with two intermissions, in another wink to the epic family-home play it rips to shreds — and it’s to Glover and the cast’s credit how little it flags in that running time. The muscular, physical direction keeps the throttle down through antic set-pieces so when it lets the audience breathe, the break is more whiplash than relief.

One of the most stunning sets I’ve seen from Available Light, designed by Steve Emerson, helps that effect, with props master Lonelle Yoder adding touches that reinforce a hoarder lived in that old mansion. Griffin DeWitt’s evocative lighting and Dave Wallingford’s sound combine to add to the musty, humid atmosphere the play needs.

Obviousness and old-school theatre magic in the last 10 minutes defang some of the play’s everyone-is-terrible message and soften it in a way that feels cheap. But aside from those moments, this is an acidic, invigorating evening that will make you laugh, make you hate yourself for laughing, make you hate yourself for giving someone the benefit of the doubt, but acknowledge the horrible, beautiful nature of being human.

Appropriate runs through Feb. 2 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.

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