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a Drama
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 4980

SHOWING : October 29, 2016 - November 20, 2016



In this raucous dark comedy, the dysfunctional Lafayette siblings descend on their ancestral Arkansas home to settle their father’s estate. When they start digging through an accumulation of hoarded junk, they uncover more than a crumbling plantation mansion. A disturbing secret discovered among the clutter launches them into a scorchingly funny theatrical family fight fest and forces them to question the father they thought they knew.

Director Freddie Ashley
Rachael Cynthia Barrett
River aka Tricia Alexandra Ficken
Bo Kevin Stillwell
Frank J. Joe Sykes
Toni Jan Wikstrom
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August: No Sage County
by playgoer
Sunday, November 6, 2016
"Appropriate" takes place in a ramshackle plantation house lived in for the past decade by a hoarder. After his death, his three children and their families have descended on the place to get things ready for an auction of the belongings and of the house itself. The set, by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, is a wonderfully mottled blend of mildew, mold, and layers of wallpaper, but it goes perhaps a bit overboard. All the families are staying overnight in the house, and if the upstairs of the house is as moldy as the downstairs is, it’s unlikely that mothers would allow their children to bed down in such surroundings. At least the place seems structurally sound, with a curved staircase up center containing a sturdy banister (even though the baluster spindles seem off the vertical); large, undamaged windows stage left; and transoms over the outside and kitchen doors.

Mary Parker’s lighting design has a lot of effects, many of dim night illumination, but (at least in a preview performance) the kitchen transom isn’t shielded properly from backstage light, showing shadows whenever anyone ascends the stairs and waits for an entrance. Preston Goodson’s sound design also has a lot of effects, with cicada sounds changing volume nicely with the opening and closing of the outside door, but the effects are overblown at the opening and closing of the show. Katy Munroe’s costumes fit the characters without drawing undue attention to themselves. Kimberly Townsend’s props, on the other hand, are varied and copious. Kudos to her.

I don’t envy the stage crew of the show. At the start, the stage is messy and crowded, but with sufficient room for the cast to move around. At the act break, the room needs to be tidied up in preparation for the auction. By the end of the play, parts of the set are in worse shape than at the beginning. And it all has to be reset for the next performance.

While the acting is good throughout, there’s an air of artificiality about the whole plot, as if the playwright is too young and inexperienced in life to capture the cultural underpinnings of the characters he has written. Director Freddie Ashley hasn’t gotten the cast to make these characters seem totally real. Bryan Brendle and Alexandra Ficken seem to be miscast as a couple of recovering substance abusers, with little sense of fragility, although real tears are shed. Jan Wikstrom is given the unenviable task of portraying older sister Toni, whose monstrous behavior overwhelms the play and whose second-act moments of softness consequently don’t ring true. The three children’s roles (played by Dylan Moore, John Osorio, and Devon Hales) seem caricatures in some ways and don’t truly come to life. The most realistic pair are Kevin Stillwell and Cynthia Barrett as husband and wife, with Ms. Barrett’s reactions throughout beautifully calibrated to capture the truth of her character.

Unless things improve drastically from previews, Mr. Ashley’s direction produces a play a full half hour longer than previous productions of the play. There’s a lot of action in the first act and near the end of the second act, but most of the second act is two-character scenes that probe more deeply into the character traits we’ve been introduced to. It’s a standard playwriting convention, but can make for some slow going.

Things will improve during the run. There will be fewer line stumbles. David Sterritt’s fight choreography will appear more realistic. The pace will improve. (And I hope Mr. Osorio’s scene-ending business will be shaped to have some meaning.) But the play itself will remain a construct rather than slice of true, human life. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is obviously talented and has written a play that will entertain many and cause discussion among playgoers, but during the performance I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing a variation on "August: Osage County," with the spiritually sensitive River (Ms. Ficken) failing to bring any sage to purify the toxic environment whose fumes pervade the show from start to finish. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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