As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of Planet Ant’s “Appropriate,” on May 11, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:
Sometimes, a death in the family can bring out the worst in people. This is, in part, because family members are each processing grief in their own way, but there are also awkward, inevitable conversations about who gets what, and how assets should be divided. In addition, everyone involved is forced to revisit and reassess their relationship to the deceased and to each other. And finally, related adults who have long gotten used to not living anywhere close to each other may suddenly find themselves thrown together in close quarters for a few days.
All this (and far, far more) is in play in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate,” now being staged at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre through May 19th, directed by Joe Bailey. Set on what was once an Arkansas plantation –where the Lafayette family’s patriarch, a retired judge who became a hoarder, lived his last days – three grown siblings with lots of grudges and complicated history make the pilgrimage to the place where they spent their childhood summers.
Toni (Kelly Ann Komlen), the oldest, is reeling from a divorce, financial strain, her father’s death, and a tenuous relationship with her troubled teenage son Rhys (Shane Nelson); Bo (Joel Mitchell) initially appears to be the Lafayette sibling who broke free, living and working in New York with his wife Rachel (Melissa Beckwith) and two kids Cassidy (Meredith Deighton) and Ainsley (Forrest Gabel); and Frank (Donny Reidel), the longtime addict who’s been MIA for years, suddenly appears on the scene with a young vegan wife named River (Jaclynn Cherry). As family members try to clean up the decaying house for sale, they unearth some alarming items, including a photo album full of lynching photos, and anatomical souvenirs in jars.
DC: I don’t know about you, Jenn, but for me, “Appropriate” was one of the quickest three hours I’ve ever spent inside a theater – and that’s considering it included three acts and two intermissions. I credit that to a couple of things: An amazingly complex script; a director who played to the strengths of both the script and his actors; and performances that kept me focused and invested in the story right up till the end. Tedious it’s not.
JM: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s the quickest three hours I’ve spent – the first act is intense, and I felt pretty wrung out by the time the first intermission arrived – but I did find myself engaged and sitting on the edge of my seat as things progressed, and more and more was revealed.
DC: Given that we’ve become so used to shows that run 90 minutes or less, I expected the show to take forever. But it barely seemed two hours to me, let alone three – and that’s coming from someone who’d been up since 5 that morning and would’ve normally been asleep long before the curtain came down.
JM: I thought the play struck some similar notes to Letts’ “August: Osage County.” Family dysfunction run amok, occasional dry humor, a really dark underbelly – complicated, rich material that tackles the messy intersection of history, race, power, and how that resonates within this family through the generations.
DC: Interesting; I hadn’t thought of that. I see somewhat of a similarity to a different show. The playwright is very skillful at dribbling out dollops of information throughout the show that provide you with just enough detail to begin making assumptions or drawing conclusions about certain things, yet it’s not enough to allow you to be fully certain that what you think you know is one-hundred-percent, absolutely true. It’s kind of like John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which is one of my all-time favorite scripts. If it’s done correctly, you should have doubts at the end of the show as to whether or not the priest is guilty of sexual assault. In “Appropriate,” you should have doubts and suspicions about a lot things, which is why I’ve been thinking about the play quite a lot since last Friday night.
JM: It certainly hangs its hat on ambiguity, as does “Doubt.” You hear the perspective of each person in this family, and they all have good points, as well as flaws. You don’t really take sides because you can’t.
DC: Right, you can’t, because some of what’s revealed is circumstantial, and other revelations are in conflict with one another. Especially as the first act progresses, it’s not clear what everyone’s motivations are and whose recollections are most accurate.
JM: Which is totally realistic, of course. This is why so many conflicts in families can never, ever quite be resolved.
DC: Exactly. And you were right about something else, as well. By the end of Act One, you can’t help but wonder if you can survive two more such emotional wringers. Luckily, there’s a shift in tone in Act Two.
JM: Yes. I really did wonder if I was up for it. But it’s not a one-note play. It’s got different textures, but you have to get through that first, highly confrontational and tense first act. It’s like a freshman weeder class, in a sense. To be able to handle what’s coming, you kind of have to prove your willingness to look at some pretty ugly stuff in the face. Maybe it just wouldn’t work, otherwise.
DC: I suspect that’s true. Act One certainly lays out all sorts of “stuff” that sets off an initial round of emotional turmoil that later sets the stage for what follows. The way Jacobs-Jenkins accomplishes that is quite fascinating.
JM: I’ll try not to reveal too much, but I’m compelled to ask you what you thought about the role race plays in this show about a white family.
DC: That’s one of two topics where I think the playwright proves just how masterful he is. Jacobs-Jenkins sets up his discussion on race by letting us know the deceased, whose ghost hangs over the entire play, is the fifth-generation owner of what was once a slave plantation in Arkansas. So he creates for us a certain set of characteristics by which we can make certain assumptions about him. So when heretofore secret artifacts are discovered while preparing to sell his home, we can easily jump to certain conclusions. But then additional information about his history and background are revealed – including statements by a black woman who took care of him towards the end of his life – that make you rethink your initial assumptions. So now we have potentially conflicting information to sort through, and it’s STILL not a complete portrait of the man. And unfortunately, he’s not available to defend himself against what seem to be some pretty damning evidence.
JM: But one thing that felt so unnerving to me – probably the playwright’s intent, of course – was how, while everyone was horrified by the existence of lynching photos in the house, they nonetheless seemed totally willing to profit from them, without too much conversation or thought about whose hands they might fall to, or what that party might use them for. Plus, when they unearth saved, anatomical relics from lynchings, I found that even more disturbing, but their response is, essentially, “Put that away!” It was chilling.
DC: I agree. People are complicated, and sometimes we don’t want to think about the ugliness we’re confronted with – especially if it means acknowledging something despicable about a loved one. It’s also amazing how quickly some folks can push such atrocities aside when money is potentially involved.
JM: But to me, the fact that they could dismiss the pain and ugliness of these things relatively easily, and not recoil more on a human level, seemed to be Jacobs-Jenkins’ way of saying, this is how an oppressor responds to relics of its own past, versus what it would be like for a black family to come face-to-face with them. There’s a banality to their reaction that hurts you to witness. But the implication of this numbness, too, seems to be the lasting, existential damage to this family. They are broken, and there seems to be no real hope for things to get better.
DC: There’s another way to look at their reaction that can’t be ignored. They might not look at it as a part of their own past – partially because there’s no real proof of where the relics came from and why they were there. But also because they may not accept any responsibility or acknowledge any responsibility for them since they themselves had nothing to do with them. That’s part of what I love about the script: There are multiple ways to look at or interpret what he presenting, mainly because he’s given us just the right amount to keep us guessing.
JM: I don’t know. There certainly are several unanswered questions, but I felt pretty persuaded that if the items didn’t belong to their deceased father, it didn’t go too much further back in the family tree. As one character said, it seems unlikely someone visited, brought their lynching memorabilia, and just left it behind. To me, the idea that this ugly history is enmeshed in this messed up family’s identity seemed put to rest. And this suggested, at least in part, why the family has become what it is. But that’s me trying to connect the dots, as the playwright invites us to do.
DC: I understand. But labeling a person as racist is a serious charge, one that can do great and long-lasting damage if it’s applied incorrectly. And so I’m very loathe to call someone that without indisputable evidence. So while he may have been one, there are also many other possibilities as to why he had those relics in the house, such as they could have belonged to his father or great grandfather and he didn’t discover them till late in life; since it was established he was a well-respected attorney and judge in D.C. on track for the Supreme Court, they could have been part of a case he handled; or he also could have intended to give them to something like what we have here in Michigan, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Or, he could have been a member of the KKK, but nothing in the story revealed racism towards blacks – including what his caregiver said. We still don’t know all the facts; it’s all circumstantial.
JM: What about what he said to Bo in his dorm room? About keeping watch on his possessions because of his black roommate?
DC: Yes, that’s certainly a potential check in the “he’s a racist” category. But because we don’t have enough information about him and his past, it could also reflect prejudice on his part, which is not the same as being a racist. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood and heard parents of all colors and ethnicities make similar statements to their kids about other kids they were suspicious of for various reasons (me included). So what he said doesn’t necessarily mean he hates all black people or feels superior to them.
JM: Maybe. But that definitely scored one for the prosecution for me. And as a sidenote, it was interesting to learn, after-the-fact, that the playwright is African American. Not that that necessarily changes things, but I just thought, “Oh. That’s interesting, too.”
DC: Unfortunately, when race is involved, we’re quick to judge, even when all the facts aren’t clear.
JM: But it’s hard not to be quick to judge, given our country’s history and, frankly, the contemporary aftershocks of that history, which I’d argue we’re still very much living with.
DC: What did you think about the relationship between Rhys and Frank?
JM: The Rhys and Frank dynamic was weird – but then everything involving Frank was kind of weird. Toni blames Frank for being a bad influence on Rhys, but when a misunderstanding occurs, and what Frank thinks he sees is Rhys pleasuring himself in front of the horrifying photo album, his attempt to talk to him, awkward though it is, comes off as good-hearted and sweet. Even if the experience he thinks is connecting them is creepy.
DC: To me, what’s even creepier is when Frank alludes to what he sees as similarities between the two of them. When Frank apprehensively asks Rhys if he remembered him, which got me wondering: We know Frank assaulted an underage girl in his past. Could something have happened between him and Rhys as well?
JM: It’s verrrry gently suggested that this could have happened; that suggestion of Frank possibly molesting Rhys as a child is there. Something else we can never quite put together, given the pieces provided by the script.
DC: That’s not the only creepy relationship in the story. But we won’t go there.
JM: And I must say, Donny Reidel’s performance as Frank is odd, but that’s kind of perfectly in keeping with the character. There’s something so off about him, in so many ways. And Reidel’s tall, lanky physique being hunched throughout, particularly when talking to his siblings, conveyed so much of his discomfort with his body, with himself. The strange and constant gesturing achieved that, too.
DC: I agree. There’s a certain…halting…to his performance seems to indicate Frank might be a bit slow, or more likely, he’s a burn out. It certainly creates a specific impression on you.
JM: At first, I thought Reidel might be playing things too emphatically – like, self-consciously odd. But as you learn more about Frank and his past, it feels less out of left field and more like, well, maybe someone with all this in their history would be this mess of spaced out nerves.
DC: Totally. I agree with that. And when in the third act he tries to fix what he sees as a problem, he actually lights up – that the years of family baggage have finally been lifted from his shoulders. Too bad the response isn’t what he was expecting.
JM: Yes, I was with his young wife River/Tricia on that one. I thought, “He may have just saved you all from yourselves.” But to his siblings, this is just one more example of his self-absorption and idiocy.
DC: Yes, and without wanting to give much away, money is once again at the root of their reaction.
JM: Yes – but again, at what spiritual price does that money come? I understood the reasons for the siblings’ reactions – they’re in dire financial straits, with little hope of escaping – but that’s a tough, tough call, morally speaking.
DC: It is. And your question doesn’t get answered. There are no easy answers to be found in the play.
JM: Let’s talk about the other messed up family members, shall we?
DC: (laughs) We have so many to choose from, too! How about we start with River. You first this time!
JM: Jaclynn Cherry plays the chirpy young vegan who, despite her willingness to walk miles with Frank and simply camp on the property, also seems to keep speaking up when it comes to Frank’s legal share of the house and everything attached to it. It’s an interesting part. Cherry does a pretty good job of managing that balancing act.
DC: Like pretty much everyone else in the house, she too seems to have an agenda. And hers is making sure Frank gets whatever money he’s entitled to. But as played by Cherry, she really DOES seem to have his best interests at heart. It is indeed a well-balanced performance. Much of the time she’s saccharinely sweet and doe-eyed, but when needed, she becomes a fiercely protective mama bear who’s scared of no one.
JM: You see why she drives Toni crazy, with her youth and earth-hugginess and her optimism, but you also understand why Frank loves her. She believes in him more than anyone, including Frank himself, ever has in his life. Which makes her discoveries about the unadorned truth of his past all the more wrenching.
DC: Toni isn’t used to anyone standing up to her, especially an outsider like River. She finally meets her match.
JM: Ooh, let’s talk about Toni! Kelly Ann Komlen has an exhausting first act. It was emotionally taxing for me to experience, just as an audience member, but holy cow! If I was living that each performance, I’d be trying to cram in a power nap during the first intermission in the green room. Woo! It’s a bear of a role, and she is all in.
DC: I don’t know how she can go home at night and relax. Her performance is utterly amazing for its intensity, ferocity and focus. She’s on the attack pretty much throughout the entire first act, and she doesn’t hold back or take prisoners. It’s one of the strongest performances of the year, I think.
JM: It’s visceral for sure. We throw around “force of nature” a lot, but Toni really IS one. She’s so raw that she can no longer traffic in nuance or artifice or conventions anymore. She’s just done. And it’s hard to watch a woman who’s reached that point, after trying to do the right thing for years, and only experiencing more and more pain.
DC: Especially since her brothers did little to nothing to help over the years except financially, and now they have nothing but complaints about she’s been handling things. I’d be a bit upset, too!
JM: Even Komlen’s hair looks the part, if that doesn’t sound ridiculous. Frizzy wisps just hang down around her face, with the rest sloppily clipped back – just another sign of Toni having lost all motivation.
DC: Now let’s rag on Bo, her brother.
JM: Bo and Toni are happy to gang up on Frank, but they’re better-matched sparring partners for each other. And Mitchell, as always, is terrific as the New York guy who’s assumed to be in a better place financially than he is. The others see him as the one who escaped the family, but he’s secretly facing an economic crisis, which may lead to a personal crisis as well.
DC: For me, his is a rather intriguing performance. Mitchell is known for playing bombastic characters, storm-the-stage types of characters, but in this case, he’s very nuanced. He’s not the usual alpha male here; in fact, I suspect it’s his wife who rules the roost back home. I really enjoyed how he played this character.
JM: Well, to go toe to toe with Komlen’s Toni, he gets to flex a little bombast muscle. But it’s definitely a varied, challenging journey to depict.
DC: That leads to another fine performance: Melissa Beckwith as Rachel.
JM: There really is some top-notch local talent in this show. Beckwith’s steely spined Rachel is another person not scared to stand up to Toni.
DC: The women in the show are by far the strongest characters. They have more and bigger balls than the guys do.
JM: Yes. This is really, in part, about whose arguments and methods will win out among the women involved.
DC: Very much so.
JM: And like Reidel, Beckwith’s posture and movements express so much about Rachel, and what’s happening under the surface. Add in the New York accent, and you know that while she may be little, she won’t be moved.
DC: She’s a force to be reckoned with, that’s for sure. It’s easy to see why she rubs family members the wrong way. She’s not always likable.
JM: Who is, in this story?
DC: (laughs) Not a single one of them, actually. Which is contrary to what we’re told is good playwriting. There’s no one who serves as a protagonist we can identify with.
JM: The irony is, though, we identify with almost everyone to some degree, because as we mentioned at the start, they each have good points alongside some truck-sized flaws. You can always at least understand where they’re coming from, and that they’ve done the best they could. They’ve tried to do “the right thing,” but it seems not only at cross-purposes, but also, on some level, leads them closer toward self-destruction.
DC: Yes, by the end of the show, we don’t have much hope this family will stay together
JM: Speaking of the play’s end – which I won’t reveal – it threw me for a loop. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I’ve been guessing since Friday night, but I’m still floating on what, exactly, it meant to send us home with.
DC: You’re not the only one! I was scratching my head about that as well. I have an idea what it meant, but like the rest of the show, I don’t have enough information to make a final determination.
JM: I came up with several possible reads of the play’s final moment. But the more I thought about it, the darker the different options became.
DC: Yep. Me, too.
JM: What did you think of Jennifer Maiseloff’s set design? Was it rough and cluttered enough to look like the house of a hoarder?
DC: At first I would have expected it to be even more cluttered, but a line in the play indicated a lot of it had been cleared already, so it didn’t bug me as much.
JM: The walls, and stripped doorframes and mouldings, certainly made it believable that this house might not be sale-able. Looked like an abandoned place for squatters more than a place someone recently called home.
DC: Yes, a haunted house, maybe. But nothing anyone would want to buy – hence, part of their financial dilemma.
JM: Which reinforces the idea that the photos may be their only way to come out of this with anything to show for it. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the family is suffering from previous generations’ karma.
DC: That’s why the ending puts much of the show in doubt. (laughs) I think that was certainly the motivation for some of them.
JM: And, as is true whenever I see “fight choreographer” listed in the program, I think, “Ooh, there’s going to be a fight!” And this one involves just about everyone.
DC: It sure does! It’s like a killer, “winner-take-all” cage fight, but without a referee.
JM: With so many characters involved in the ruckus – which brews for a long time over the course of the first two acts – the choreography feels like it has to paint a broad tableau of physical mayhem and violence. And it does. Your eye doesn’t quite know what to focus on, so you just try to take in the whole picture.
DC: Yes, even though there’s a lot going on, Bailey’s direction and Sydney Lepora’s fight choreography keep you focused on where it needs to be.
JM: So … what’s your general consensus about the show? Would you recommend it?
DC: Yes, I certainly would – but with a warning label! (laughs) It’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece that will have you questioning pretty much everything you see for hours and days afterward. You?
JM: I would, too, with similar caveats. Like, you should definitely be up for something challenging and intense. Eat your Wheaties before you go, because you can’t just casually sit back and have this play fed to you. There’s a lot of meat on the bone, lots of stuff to unpack. For instance, the title. What did you make of that?
DC: Thanks for the fast ball, Jenn. (laughs) That’s part of what I’ve been chewing on since last Friday. Was Frank’s decision the “appropriate” response to what the family discovered? Is it “appropriate” to dig for skeletons inside a deceased parent’s closet? I have a lot more of those, if you’re interested…
JM: But it also strikes me that “Appropriate,” in the other sense of the term, the verb form, makes sense here, too. To take or seize without permission.
DC: Ah, you got me there…I hadn’t thought of it that way.
JM: There’s so many ways that you can break that meaning down. You’ve got an African American playwright writing about a white family, which could spark a number of conversations about cultural appropriation. But then, of course, the lynching relics point to a far more horrifying, literal, and bodily form of appropriation.
DC: Damn…now I have even more to think about! (laughs)
JM: Yes, which indicates we should probably wrap this up before it becomes more a novella than a review.
DC: Sounds like a good idea. If our two or three readers don’t have a good flavor for what this show is about by now, they never will.