Death does strange things to people. And in familiar circumstances, people struggling with a death in the family will turn on each other in a heartbeat; siblings and relations will treat each other worse than strangers on the street because they know how to cut – and when they do – they cut deep. Continuing in the vein of unearthing America’s sordid past in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s 34th season: America’s Tell-Tale Heart, Director Liesl Tommy brings Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ riveting new work Appropriate to the stage.
This gripping family drama centralizes itself around the death of three semi-estranged siblings who have come to Arkansas to settle their father’s plantation estate – only to discover dark secrets about their families past, further driving the stake of discord into their relationships. A stunning look at the family dynamic and how easily civility can dissolve under the strain of mourning; Jacob-Jenkins’ work is inspiring and captivating with a provocative edge that left me and members of the audience stunned.
Creating fallen grandeur on the stage for a full location immersion is an admirable quality, one that Set Designer Clint Ramos excels at with his vision for his overall set. The inside of the Lafayette Manor home is a gloriously grotesque summation of time passing life by. The decaying ruination is evident everywhere you look, from the moldering walls and peeling wallpaper to the derelict wooden boards that have busted through the structure. The house itself is so intensely decrepit that you almost expect the stench of decay and mustiness to accompany it. Ramos packs the perfect balance of junk and clutter into this ‘hoarder’ home, creating the desired effect without overwhelming the audience with too many things to detract from the action of the show.
Joe Isenberg, the show’s Fight Choreographer, deserves a nod of appreciation for his extremely tight and well-executed brawling routine. Isenberg makes the enormous family feud actualized in the most brutal fashion possible, a full-on physical devolvement into the baser human instincts of violence. The eruption of this extremely intense fight is done with such a tight precision that it looks incredibly realistic. Isenberg really lets the drama fly, in the most physical fashion possible, bringing all of the raging emotions to a ballistic head as the punches land and the battle begins.
Director Liesl Tommy imports artistic vision into the focus of Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ work, focusing intricately on the delicate strain of relationships between individuals. The way the characters bristle at one another right from the beginning of the play highlights the tension that Jacob-Jenkins’ has crafted into the dialogue. The overall subject matter of the show is so much deeper than family drama and Tommy does an exceptional job of bringing that to the surface.
Jacob-Jenkins’ work includes all the facets of problems in a family including young teenagers. Cassidy (Maya Brettell) and Rhys (Josh Adams) brings a fresh perspective to the family situation because they view the world one step at a time; living in the moment rather than the prospective future, or the darkened past, as the adult characters do. Brettell gives a sassy performance with a great deal of spunk in her vocalizations; posing just the right questions at the most awkward of moments. Adams gives an equally entertaining portrayal of a moody teenager with quiet issues. The pair has a fantastically inappropriate nervous chemistry between them that really sparks the subtleties of the plays undertones.
Perched on the edge of youthful naiveté and wisdom beyond her years is River (Caitlin McColl). Bringing a spiritual optimism to the plate, McColl’s portrayal of the almost flighty character balances out the gravity of everyone else’s anger. McColl speaks gently and exudes positive energy that infiltrates even the most drastic of situations; her grounded presence attributing to the serene, albeit virtually non-existent, tranquility that fleetingly occurs throughout the production.
The foil to River’s character appears in Rachel (Beth Hylton). Portraying an edgy and somewhat haughty mother figure, Hylton does an exceptional job with bottling up her emotional until they explode in a verbal tirade aimed at Toni. Watching the physical and emotional struggle that Hylton’s character undergoes, especially when trying to hold her tongue during moments of confrontation with Toni is riveting; her reactionary responses more impressive than any dialogue could be.
The trio of family tension mounts between the siblings, Frank (Tim Getman), Bo (David Bishins), and Toni (Deborah Hazlett). Creating enormous moments of dynamic arguments, these three talented actors give sensational performances throughout the production; their interactions with each other as well as the others in the show are the fleshy reality of family dysfunction. Knowing exactly which moments to overreact to, and how to interpret the cryptic emotional nuances of each other’s performances, makes for a series of stunning scenes that really capture the essence of family estrangement.
Getman, as the recovering pervert in the family, creates an amusing character in this family dynamic. His spaced-out mental presence is a comic front that hides his not-so-controlled anger management issues. When Getman loses control it ripples lightning quick through his voice and body making him one intense man to observe. His stunning revelation toward the end of the production is delivered with such clarity that it’s impossible not to believe his character’s evolution.
Bishins, as the disgruntled middle child in this haphazard trio, brings a ferocious stage presence to the performance. Digging his heels into the arguments that crop up between he and Hazlett as the family’s historical secrets ghost into play, Bishins develops a well rounded character that has true emotional depth. By the end of the performance he’s touched your heart in a way that would otherwise be seemingly impossible.
But it’s Hazlett’s performance as the strung-out spastic eldest child that really gripped me by the heartstrings and stops your pulse. Hazlett is incredibly bitter; the world has gobbled her character up, spit it back out and the audience is left with the remnants of a once beautiful soul turned cold and calloused inside. She does a phenomenal job of translating this hardship into palpable relatable emotions, and holds her own in every fight and argument that occurs. Every bit the versatile performer that this character deserves, Hazlett finds moments of humor to infuse balance into her portrayal and really drives home the undertones of family being a ‘convenient lie’ in her final monologue.
Families everywhere, especially those that have experienced a death in the family, should experience Appropriate. It will push you to the edge of your comfort zone and make you think. Audiences everywhere will find that Appropriate is much closer to home than they imagined.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Appropriate plays through December 1, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.
Liesl Tommy on Directing ‘Appropriate’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther.