'Appropriate' by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Now onstage at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre
The informal ‘family dysfunction’ genre has long been a dramatic vehicle from Tennessee Williams to the Bard himself. American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins burnishes the topic to incendiary heights with his 2013 play ‘Appropriate.’
Opening this month at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, this fierce production begins Coal Mine’s first full season in its new location after a devastating fire. A gifted cast, illuminating direction from Ted Dykstra and a seething set design from Steve Lucas and Rebecca Morris electrify the audience despite the almost three-hour marathon.
This play cannot afford subtlety. Along with the ‘dysfunction’ theme, Jacobs-Jenkins blends southern racism, historical and horrifying violence, drug culture misery, antisemitism and multiple forms of sexual abuse. Seemingly a formula for a depressing experience, somehow, the production awakens the soul and revives the human need to reach into the past despite its darkness.
The Lafayettes, a white family, return to their mouldering plantation mansion in southern Arkansas that has been in decay for years. The father’s recent death brings them together along with a host of long-time grievances and the expected avarice. The prodigal son, Frank, played by Andy Trithardt, sneaks into the darkened house with his newly minted fiancé (Alison Beckwith), and collisions ensue. The family is shocked by his appearance, none more so than the fiery older sister Toni played by Raquel Duffy, with brilliant aggression.
Joining the toxic reunion is Bo and his family, including wife Rachael, teenager Cassie and youngster Ainsley. Played forcefully by Gray Powell, Bo tries to be pragmatic and centered, but he falls into the horrors of the past as they all do. The discovery of a repugnant item illuminating the horrors of historical racism and violence triggers even more tension in the family.
Ms. Duffy’s hyperactive portrayal of Toni rails against the world as she is collapsing through a divorce and the criminal travails of her teenage son Rhys (Mackenzie Wojcik), played with an ugly cool demeanor, sultry and angry. Toni’s anger is bent towards Rachael, who she sees as an unwanted outsider, along with the whimsical girlfriend River, whose infectious Goldie Hawn eyes belie more crafty substance.
The sale of house and goods turns into a disaster, and conflicts are even more heightened. More horrors of southern history are revealed, and raw sexual crimes pile on the steamy mess. Not even the young child is spared the horrid past.
With eight characters and centuries of grim history, producing this vast experience on such a small stage seems impossible. But Dykstra’s careful direction smoothly moves characters interacting in various configurations. The set design of a crumbling mansion seemingly opens up the space, especially with drooping curtains framing a large window that reveals the frightening forest of horrors and the two cemeteries – one for Lafayette family and one for slaves.
The three acts suggest a rhythm of sorts. Act one blasts us with glaring lights, combative dialogue and accusatory gestures. Act two is darkened and entitled “Walpurgisnacht” suggesting a witches’ sabbath – characters are quieter and become more introspective. Act three rolls back to the garish nightmare, and, starkly, virtually nothing is resolved.
The soundscape haunts us, especially with a full concert of cicadas expressing a terrifying loneliness.
Again, the set design becomes almost another character – a confederate flag is seen hidden in a corner until it is dragged fully on stage – no subtlety here. The character is then fully awakened at the conclusion as the audience exits with the lashes of cruel history still echoing.
‘Appropriate’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Performers: Raquel Duffy, Mackenzie Wojcik, Gray Powell, Amy Lee, Hannah Levinson, Ruari Hamman, Andy Trithardt, Alison Beckwith
Director: Ted Dykstra
Set Design: Steve Lucas, Rebecca Morris
Lighting Design: Steve Lucas
Sound Design: Deanna H. Choy, Michael Wanless
Costume Design: Des’ree Gray
Production runs through October 21, 2023.
Tickets at coalminetheatre.com