Port City Playhouse is a scrappy little theater company brave enough to tackle important plays. Their literature states that they specialize in top-quality, thought-provoking plays, within a diverse community, and are often area premieres. Hidden in plain sight, I drove by the space on Alexandria’s Quaker Lane, for years before learning of Port City’s productions, which are well worth seeking out. Their current production of Stickfly has some excellent qualities.
Lydia R. Diamond’s Stickfly was produced on Broadway in 2011. An exceptional example of family drama, Diamond’s play explores the combustible dynamics of a wealthy black family gathering at their family retreat on Martha’s Vineyard. From the first moment of this play, we are given insights into where characters are finding dreams and challenges. Family is often seen at the center of both.
The play begins with a joyful scene as Cheryl is found “opening up” the LeVay family house on Marthas’ Vineyard. As she pulls sheets off furniture, she listens on her headphones to music that is so loud the audience also hears it. Director Kevin Sockwell has built a lovely little voyeuristic moment as Cheryl works and sings along and is truly “dancing like no one is watching.” Kashanya Johnson, who plays Cheryl, had me sympathetic to her character immediately. She is cooking and cleaning and filling in for the role her ill mother held for decades, working for the LeVay family.
The audience is drawn into the story by questions that are dangled like tempting treats promised to a hungry child. The two LeVay brothers arrive separately, bringing their new ladies to the family vacation home for the first time. Kent, the younger brother, played by Mack Leamon, arrives first with his fiancée, Taylor, played by Brittany Caldwell. The subtleties of the two actors hint to the audience clues about their relationship and especially about the fears that Taylor has about the first meeting with the parents of Spoon (as she calls Kent).
When the eldest brother, Flip (Chaz Pando) arrives, he is cocky and comfortable with everything except the impending introduction of his girlfriend to the family. The brother’s scenes together are consistently great and the excellent acting of both draw subtle comparisons between the two. When his girlfriend Kimber (Fatima Razi) arrives, we recognize the difference in Flip’s treatment of women and Kent’s.
Joseph LeVay, the Dad, played by William Greene, is a highly successful neurosurgeon. He is kindly and bossy to everyone except Kent, with whom he is constantly unsatisfied, and to whom he is not kind at all. He is charming with his son’s girlfriends, in fact too charming. Greene portrays him as easy-going on the surface, with less desirable traits hiding behind a relaxed façade. His impact on his sons reverberates in every remaining moment of the play.
The ensemble cast is strong. Each character has strong moments. While every one of them is played as exceptionally bright, I love that we see weaknesses and vulnerabilities in every character. The dialogue is generally witty and intellectual, while sometimes “slumming” when characters choose to “keep it real.” Both Taylor and Kimber have impressive history and experience dealing with inherent, or perhaps intrinsic issues of this family. These issues include racism, struggles with class, and feelings of marginalization. At the heart is the search for love and the building or destruction of family. From positions of both pride and defensiveness, characters lash out, blaming others for supposed and for very real faults. They are all wounded and often are unkind in their attacks on others. Yes, that is part of family.
My favorite scene, when all six actors are in the same room at one time, is when Cheryl shares newly learned information. That news is climactic and explodes upon the family like an earthquake. Aftershocks are disruptive enough to change family relationships forever; bonds are broken and new alliances formed.
The staging is critical for this play and requires a masterful design to work. While generally good, there are some limitations to the theater space that Set Designer David Correia is not able to fully overcome. The space is too small to carry off the idea that this is a gorgeous house, a description mentioned by both women who are visiting for the first time. I believe that if the walls were not uniformly painted, different colored walls would have helped to separate the stage to suggest two rooms. The scale, finishes, paint choices, and set dressing need to reflect the taste, refinement, and wealth of the homeowners. It does not.
I was also frequently distracted by doors. The imaginary entrance into the house was set up a few steps between the audience and the stage. Although the front door opens into the living room, the placement of the door was on the same side of the stage as the kitchen. The actors each entered through this pantomimed door differently, and the miming didn’t seem to be in the same style as the reality of much of the set.
The door-frame set upstage between the two rooms suggests 2×4’s, not a finished doorway. Often in the script, someone enters a room unexpectedly and either bumps into someone else or inadvertently hears a secret being shared. Not all of these moments felt honest and I am afraid some of that is due to the confines of the stage.
Costumes by Nicole Zuchetto were strong, defining the characters visually. For example, in Cheryl’s first appearance, we see her in leggings which tell us that this is contemporary. The fishing outfits of Dad and Flip, were hilarious, but I did wonder why two men who had been fishing together many years, were over-outfitted, in my mind, appearing as novices. Why would Flip need a full-size, empty camo backpack for fishing?
That being said, the audience was drawn into the story, loving the frequent use of humor, the insights into families revealed by brilliant subtleties of actors and tirades of all the characters, the revelations that got us thinking. After the applause at the finale, the audience all sat in their seats, no one moving. A woman near me saw this communal self-reflection and noted, “That’s a lot to absorb.” In a wonderful way, there is much to absorb in Port City Playhouse’s Stick Fly.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.