Review: 'Appropriate' at Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“It's one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America, that families fall apart. Almost everybody has that in common.” – Sam Shepard

Shepard – one of the American masters of the dysfunctional family - died last month, so it is more than fitting that West Country Playhouse has “Appropriate” showing in its current season. Between Shepard’s death and the current tensions with the events in Charlottesville, it is a timely piece: an homage to the great American dysfunctional family, and boy, does this family make Shepard’s look like child’s play.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 work – winner of the Obie Award for Best New American Play – is a setting that is familiar to enthusiasts of family domestic dramas, with an interesting twist representing the dismal aftermath of dreams deferred.

The old Arkansas plantation of the Lafayette family serves as the setting for this three-act family reunion. The family patriarch has died, after 20 years of being a near shut-in inside the family mausoleum. His children and their families have returned to assist with the selling of the house and managing an estate sale: Toni (Betsy Aidem) and her son, Rhys (Nick Selting); Bo (David Aaron Baker) and his wife Rachel, (Diane Davis), and their children Cassidy (Allison Winn) and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin); and Franz (Shawn Fagan) and his girlfriend, River (Anna Crivelli). It’s while they go through their father’s belongings that they discover a shocking secret about their beloved father: one that is hard for some of them to accept. It also brings out the toxicity in each of these people: with an emphasis on greed and pride.

Emotions run high in this family drama. I spent most of the performance with my stomach in knots, an honest, visceral response to the events playing out on stage. These incredibly complex, hopelessly flawed persons are masterfully composed by playwright Jacobs-Jenkins and fantastically portrayed by the actors. All have secrets – some more than others – and we sit with our insides twisted, waiting for the next skeleton to leap of the closet.

Ms. Aidem is remarkable as the troubled eldest Lafayette; her performance is twisted, ugly, and fantastic.  Mr. Fagan also excels as the prodigal-son-in-recovery Franz; his efforts to make amends with a family he felt abandoned him and left him to his own demons. Mr. Baker’s portrayal as the financially-driven middle son is the balancing act between the two; the moment when he finally breaks is powerful, and you’re left wondering if it was due to financial or emotional loss. Ms. Davis plays the perfect suburban wife and mother; her venomous lashings out at Toni show the darker side of Rachel that Rachel herself finds disquieting.  Ms. Crivoli plays the earth child splendidly and may be the only character of any redeeming quality in this entire work. Ms. Winn as Cassidy excels in her difficult role playing of the awkward 13-year-old daughter of Bo and Rachel, who appears to be a victim of circumstances, until her one last gesture to her cousin makes you wonder if she is headed down a similar path as the rest of her unscrupulous relatives. Mr. Selting is the perfect despondent teenager who waffles between disinterested and disgusted, especially regarding his emotionally-overbearing mother. And while Mr. Camporin has few lines, he has one of the most shocking moments in the play.

Beyond the stellar, powerful performances, the creative team also really excelled in this production. Scenic design by Andrew Boyce is phenomenal: his design captures the faded Old South beautifully with a palette of blues and grays and touches of color, as if the Confederacy could rise again. Matthew Richards’ task for lighting this show was tough, as many of the scenes were dimly lit or in candlelight. His seamless fusion of practical and stage lighting was particularly skillful.  His design was eerie and edgy, adding to the overall tension of the play.  Sound design by Fitz Patton was immersive and disturbing – perfect for the setting of the play; the only thing louder than the cicadas was the buzzing of the audience members during intermission. 

But it’s the last scenes of the play where all the creative team’s efforts come together brilliantly in a haunting time-lapse of decay and destruction. It is powerful and poignant, highlighting the collapse of tradition and past, and what its remnants might have to teach us in the future. At least, that’s what I saw in the young woman with the clipboard, reviewing the ruins around her.

By the end, you question the morality of humanity, and scrutinize your own - and other’s - principles; the conversation about the characters’ choices spilled over into the next day in my household, as I imagine it did in many homes of audience members.  And that, my friends, is the sign of thought-provoking, not-to-be-missed theater. Just make sure to pre-order your drink at the bar for intermission – you’ll need it.

Photo:  L-R: Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177.   Photo by Carol Rosegg