The elevator pitch for the young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's new work sounds all too familiar: Following death of patriarch, estranged siblings and in-laws converge to clean house and tie up loose strings; old resentments bubble over and family secrets are revealed.
Those bones could describe the skeleton of any number of middling American plays, but when I first saw Appropriate last spring, at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville—Gary Griffin's staging is billed as a co-world premiere between ATL and Victory Gardens—I foresaw inevitable comparisons when the play reached Chicago this fall to our highest-profile recent iteration, August: Osage County. Both follow the basic formula I laid out above, and what's more, both are set in the rural mid-South—Osage County in windswept Oklahoma and Appropriate in cicada-beset Arkansas.
After seeing Griffin's restaging for Victory Gardens, performed by a new and exquisite all-Chicago cast and with Jacobs-Jenkins having made many of the judicious script tweaks I'd hoped he would, I'm more certain than ever those comparisons will be made. I'm also more certain than ever that Appropriate stands up proudly to the challenge. I've heard Griffin and Jacobs-Jenkins considered adding a second intermission—and you'll pinpoint the moment that might have called for it—but I think it might've suggested a grab for undeserved epic scale. Appropriate is more than substantial enough without inviting accusations of overreach.
Big sis Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald), Bo (Keith Kupferer) and prodigal youngest Franz (Stef Tovar) descend on the Arkansas plantation where only Franz—known to his siblings as Frank—actually lived; Toni and Bo were raised in Washington, D.C., but dad Ray relocated the troubled and in-trouble Frank to the old family homestead after the children's mother died.
As the adult children reconvene weeks after the funeral to deal with liquidating the estate, tensions bubble up. Franz missed the funeral because he took himself off the family's radar a decade earlier and couldn't be found to be notified; a recovering addict, he arrives with a much younger fiancée (Leah Karpel) in tow, much to the disgusted amusement (if there is such a thing) of Toni, the put-upon self-appointed martyr whose teenage son, Rhys (Alex Stage), is having troubles of his own.
Bo, now a New Yorker with a wife and two kids who's recently feeling the financial pinch of being a New Yorker with a wife and two kids, does his middle-child best to mediate between his siblings and between Toni and his wife, Rachael (Cheryl Graeff), who clash almost instantly.
This is all well-made family drama even in the earliest moments; Jacobs-Jenkins has a fine knack for simply cooping up characters with impossibly long histories and letting those back stories ping off one another in juicy fashion. What kicks Appropriate into higher gear is the seemingly innocuous piece of unknown heritage the playwright hides amid the Hoarders-level house the family has come together to disperse with.
This dusty relic, innocently unearthed by the youngest child in the room, introduces the possibility that the siblings' father had been a bigot and racist to a horrifying degree. How the entire extended family attempts to explain away, rationalize and eventually maybe monetize this new knowledge is what makes Appropriate an exceptionally brilliant piece of writing.
Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African-American and has a professed interest in ideas of anthropology and authenticity, uses his all-white cast of characters to interrogate questions of racism and historical responsibility in a way that feels wholly unforced and entirely free of straw men, though as Karpel's well-meaning River is finally forced to note, this is a family full of assholes.
And what Griffin's staging captures, in addition to everything else, is how family can be infuriating both in presence and absence. At the center of a collection of superb performances stands Fitzgerald as the family "terrorist" Toni, lording over everyone around her about just how hard she's had it. Fitzgerald's Toni is less jagged than that of Humana's Jordan Baker, whose raw, crumbling characterization seemed to emphasize her lack of class mobility compared to brother Bo.
Yet Fitzgerald magestically owns Toni in her own way, every selfish loll of her head or witheringly cruel insult contributing to her title as the toxically compelling queen bee of the clan. With Jacobs-Jenkins having happily excised the most soap-operatic twists in this otherwise gut-punchingly honest work, Victory Gardens's staging should deliver an entirely appropriate boost to his promising career.