Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has a way with words — and without words. Two of the most powerful moments in “Appropriate,” Jacob-Jenkins’ provocative new play at Victory Gardens Theater, are delivered without dialogue. A child silently descending a staircase punctuates the end of the first act with an exclamation mark. The final moment of the play doesn’t even involve an actor but simply the interior of a house, fast-forwarding through its future.
Indeed, that house interior serves as a formidable character in a play filled with formidable characters. As theatergoers enter, that set — the living room of an older house, its sofa and chairs barely visible beneath heaps of rumpled clothing and linens, its windows nearly opaque with grime — tells a story all on its own. Empty bins, books piled on the floor, stacks of junk — all suggest a home in such daunting disarray that any attempt at sorting seems futile. Credit set designer Yu Shibigaki for setting the scene for the harrowing — and surprisingly funny — drama that will evolve out of the mess.
Receiving its co-world premiere at Victory Gardens (shared with Actors Theatre of Louisville), “Appropriate” benefits from the synergy between an inventive script from an emerging playwright, a talented, energetic cast and director Gary Griffin’s nuanced orchestration of the whole. This must-see production pulls us into the dysfunctional family at its heart from the get-go.
Vying for the title of most dysfunctional is Toni, the eldest of three siblings reunited — more like stuck back together against their will — after the death of their father. She has arrived first at the decaying former plantation home in southeast Arkansas to prepare the house for auction. Kirsten Fitzgerald’s fierce portrayal of Toni is a tour de force that pulls us into the very pores of the character and allows us to see how the character sees herself. Anyone who has been unfairly labeled by family members will soon be rooting for her, despite her whopping shortcomings. Alex Stage is convincing as Toni’s troubled teenaged son Rhys.
We soon realize that Toni is not the most dysfunctional member of the family. That prize probably goes to the youngest brother, Franz aka Frank, the black sheep of this charcoal gray herd. Stef Tovar captures Franz’s inner conflict with nervous gestures and a quavering voice that he must still if he is to succeed in presenting himself to others the way he wants to be perceived, a task that he pursues with the stubbornness of Sisyphus. Leah Karpel as Frank/Franz’s young girlfriend River — they have both renamed themselves in an attempt to erase the damage of their past — plays off Tovar like a shot of seltzer in a bitter beverage.
Being the middle child does not keep brother Bo (Keith Kupferer in a mordant turn) from being bossy as he sweeps in from his upper middle class life in New York City with his family in tow: “Raising a kid in New York is a Ponzi scheme,” Bo proclaims at one point, bemoaning the challenges of his expensive lifestyle while patting himself on the back for lending financial support as his father declined. Cheryl Graeff plays Bo’s wife Rachael; Jennifer Baker plays teenaged Cassidy; youngsters Theo Moss and Mark Page share the role of Ainsley. All are solid in their roles.
One of the elephants in the room is that all the characters are white. The playwright is African American, from a privileged background. His mother was one of the first black women to graduate from Harvard Law School, and Jacobs-Jenkins did his undergraduate work at Princeton. “Appropriate” is one long, engaging conversation about race and racism — as well as about political correctness, anti-Semitism, class warfare, addiction and family dynamics.
The play’s title has layers of meaning, from delineating what sort of behavior can pass as appropriate to what’s an appropriate way to deal with others while protecting one’s own interests. But it is also about appropriation, about taking what one may or may not have a claim to. It would be inappropriate to miss it.
Through Dec. 8, 2013
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (free parking in the former Children’s Hospital garage)
Photos: Michael Courier