Review: ‘Appropriate’ at Silver Spring Stage

Silver Spring Stage is known for producing professional-level community theater, garnering more WATCH nominations and awards than any other company in Maryland. The Obie-award winner Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is the kind of play they do best: contemporary, topical, hard-hitting (one could almost say harrowing) but with touches of black humor, and stuffed full of roles that actors can sink their teeth into.

David Dieudonne and Maura Claire Harford in 'Appropriate' at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.
David Dieudonne and Maura Claire Harford in ‘Appropriate’ at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.

The story belongs to a kind of drama that has become a genre unto itself — an estranged, dysfunctional family gathers at the crumbling old homestead to sort through their dead progenitor’s possessions, argue about his legacy, and air old grievances. They wrestle with their own demons and eventually with each other. In this familythere are almost too many demons to count. The central issue is racism–among their father’s hoarded junk the siblings find an album filled with photos of lynchings. They spend the rest of the play arguing about the album, trying unsuccessfully to keep it out of the hands of their children, and wondering what to do with it.

But as if this weren’t enough, the characters also wrestle with pedophilia, drug addiction, alcoholism, anti-Semitism, financial ruin, parenting, failure, and how the sins of the fathers are passed on to the next generation. Add to this the possibility of ghosts, the two graveyards outside (one for slaves), the incessant cicadas (sound design by Jeff Goldgeiger), and half-humorous hints about Arkansas incest, and they have a full-blown Southern Gothic on their hands–but unlike in Tennessee Williams, these hands have cellphones in them.

All this gives the cast and creative team rich material to work with, and they attack it with gusto. Director Jeff Mikoni gives his actors full rein to explore every facet of their characters, from dark humor to deceit, drunkenness, despair, and physical violence. He keeps the action and interaction moving at a fast clip that belies the heat in the daytime, and at a more mysterious, dreamy pace in darkness. The one choice that seems less than natural is to have the characters refer to and address their father’s empty armchair in a way that seems slightly too obvious. But given Silver Spring Stage’s unique diagonal playing space, the actors must often face that point in order to be fully seen, so placing father’s chair there is a fair solution.

The actors, as is always the case at this company, are excellent. They take a group of characters that range from annoying to repugnant, and while losing none of their unpleasantness, imbue them with depth and humanity, and even make the audience feel sorry for them. Kerala Bannister expertly rolls her eyes and pouts “I’m almost an adult!” as the adolescent daughter. Conor Donahue portrays well the sullen embarrassment of being a teenaged boy. Rebecca Cohen and Kate Shea are richly irritating as the new-wave girlfriend and the overly protective modern mother, the outsiders who are too controlling in their helpfulness — but they are sympathetic, too, in dealing with this family’s craziness.

The play centers around the strained relationships of the three siblings, children of the dead patriarch, struggling to come to terms with their own troubles, as well as the shocking discovery that their father may have been a hood-wearing racist. Sam Lunay, as the capable brother who has seemingly made good and escaped the family’s dysfunction, shows the cracks in his responsible façade and the depths of despair underneath. He has a speech in the second act about the burden of being a white man blamed for everything that is both self-pitying and sympathetic–especially interesting coming from the pen of an African-American playwright. David Dieudonne plays the black-sheep little brother with the big secret, coming back to make amends and seek forgiveness–or is he just in it for the inheritance, like everyone else? His attempt at redemption is both comic and tragic at once.

But the real core of the play is Maura Claire Harford’s wrenching performance as the oldest sister, the one who stayed home, took care of their father and her drug-addicted brother, and pickled herself in alcohol and vitriol. Her bitterness, suspicion and resentment poison everything they touch. Having shown us in the first act that she is an irredeemably awful excuse for a human being, in the second act she manages to make us feel sorry for her, before turning around and starting a melee that leaves everyone battered, bruised and bloody (kudos to Lauren Agresti for her quick special-effects makeup, as well as for literally helping Harford let her hair down). Harford’s portrayal of this complex character is a tour-de-force.

Maura Claire Harford and Sam Lunay in 'Appropriate' at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Maura Claire Harford and Sam Lunay in ‘Appropriate’ at Silver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.

In this kind of homecoming play, the house itself is a character in the drama, and in Appropriate this is even truer than most. The set, by multiple WATCH award-winning Set Designer Andrew S. Greenleaf, is as talented as the actors. Greenleaf makes full use of the space, including making real trees visible through the windows, which stream sunlight or moonlight as needed (detailed lighting by Vanessa Lam, who even manages to convey the effect of someone carrying a candle out of a room). The decrepitude into which the house has fallen is clear, although if this was once a plantation house, the designer could have put more indications of its former grandeur under the grime. The special effects that chronicle the house’s continued fall into ruin are first-rate. Kristyn Lue’s costumes are more than appropriate.

In the end, this is a play about racism by a black playwright, with no black people in it. The term “appropriate” applies not only to the arguments about what should be kept from the youngsters (who have already seen worse on the internet), but to the appropriation — in essence, the stealing–of the cultures and even the tragedies of others for the characters’ own purposes. The playwright and the director are always aware that, even as they show the poisonous effects that racism has had on this one white family, the greatest violence was done to the people in that photo album, whose stories are not told here, but ended horribly in those pictures. Director Mikoni highlights this by having the last person on stage be African American–the most appropriate ending.

Running Time: Just under three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Appropriate runs through April 28, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Purchase tickets by calling (301) 593-6036, at the door, or online.

Note: There will be no performances the weekend of April 19-21.

Michael Greenleaf, Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette; Alika Codispoti, Properties Designer; Fight & Intimacy Director, Jonathan Rubin

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past four decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow-actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” Her most recent indomitable female was in a student-directed film where she played the monster Grendel’s Mother – a role last embodied on film by Angelina Jolie in a CGI coat of gold paint; Jennifer took it in a rather different direction. (She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; actually she is quite easy-going. Really). She has also directed shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and most recently Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. She is also the Publicity and Promotions Director for Montgomery Playhouse. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor.

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