Are people anything more than porous vessels susceptible to influence from— other people? Spirits? And is family really anything more than mismatched memories or stories that you tell yourself when you feel a certain way?’ What happens when the spirits of families past haunt you and influence you right into a catastrophe? You get Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Appropriate, now on stage at Silver Spring Stage, Directed by Jeff Mikoni. When tensions run high through the estranged Lafayette family and historical ghosts of all sorts rise up from a well-buried past in this intensely motived drama by Jacobs-Jenkins, all bets are off and the chaos that ensues shows just how dark and inappropriate family can truly be.
Silver Spring Stage is often referred to and described as the community theatre who performs at a step above the community theatre level; they are well-known for their high-quality productions. There are a great many things worthy of praise in this production, which will be outlined in much detail, but it’s often best to get the difficult bits out of the way first. Director Jeff Mikoni’s pacing of the production makes it almost intolerable to sit through, simply because so much of the show’s plot and dialogue advancement are hinged upon catalytic reactions and explosive dynamics, much of which are never achieved because of the languid pacing. If one is not familiar with the play at all, it would be easy to dismiss Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ work as lengthy and laborious. There are heavy moments all throughout this production where the stakes of these characters, and ultimately the plot, are clearly outlined by the text, but never raised to their appropriate level of heightened intensity; the drive of this show, regrettably, feels as if it is stuck sputtering in neutral. This is a disservice to the talent of many of the actors and designers who have put a great deal of effort into the performance.
Set & Special Effects Designer Andrew S. Greenleaf and Lighting Designer Vanessa Lam are meticulous in their work for this show. The play space at Silver Spring Stage has never— in recent memory— looked quite so sprawling and vast as it does with Greenleaf’s antiquated plantation set. The intricate attention to detail combined with hints of the hoarder life left lived in the once grand Arkansas plantation is quite breathtaking (although honestly a bit more of that tangible clutter would have been appreciated.) Greenleaf’s special effects (which cannot really be described in any accurate detail because of where and when and why the occur in the show, and one does not wish to spoil such splendid encounters) are ultimately misunderstood— despite the fantastical efforts he has put into crafting them. Because of the show’s abysmal pacing, the series of up-and-down lighting cues that align with all of these special effects read as confusing and create several moments of “is that the end? Wait, is that the end?” Lam’s lighting, especially the differentiation between twilight, late night, and daylight flittering in through the large porch windows, is sublime. Greenleaf and Lam deserve all the praise, despite the unclear result of their labors. And a special shout out goes to Properties Designer Alika Codispoti, the photo album and all its incarnations are most impressive.
Sound Designer Jeff Goldgeier shoulders some of director Jeff Mikoni’s burden because the pacing and transitions between scenes makes Goldgeier’s lack of transitional music or really any sort of sonic enhancement very noticeable. The one fabulous sound that Goldgeier captures with supreme authenticity is the swarming buzz of the Arkansas cicadas. This thrumming hum was an exquisite use of sound design, and leaves the mind wondering how many more interesting things Goldgeier could have created for the piece.
Jeff Mikoni assembles an imbalanced cast, which is the cause of the problematic pacing. Maura Claire Harford, as Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette, is the principal player in this somewhat ensemble piece, and falls short of delivering the professional standard by which Silver Spring Stage often abides. Harford exudes great effort in maintaining her Gone With the Wind southern plantation accent (which fails to connect at all to a plantation set in Arkansas) so much so that it dramatically slows her speech and is entirely disconnected from both her delivery and her physicality. There is an uncertain rigidity to the way she moves around the stage, which drags the pacing down further, and her overall timing in every interaction she has with the other characters is just off, which in turn throws them off. Harford’s casting is a large misstep for this production.
These issues aside— the production is worth experiencing for two reasons: the first is that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins script is deeply profound and tackles a world of issues that are harsh and prevalent today when it comes to unearthing family secrets and coping with family past. The second is the supporting cast that works tirelessly to keep the production afloat. It is all the little moments that seven other performers craft, cultivate, and ultimately create that keep the show moving forward.
Kerala Bannister and Rebecca Cohen (plays Cassidy “Cassie” Kramer-Lafayette and River Rayner, respectively) have one of the most compelling and telling moments in the production just after the intermission at the top of the second act. Bannister is the epitome of a “too-smart-for-her-years” teenager with just the right balance of flippancy to uncertainty, which makes her character a proper gem on stage. In this very telling moment she shares with Cohen’s River, there is a subtle feeling of ‘rite of passage’ shared between them, despite no authentic familial ties. Cohen’s River is mild in nature, simplistic and non-confrontational, which would read more cleanly if the characters around her were rising to their hot-boiled tempers as the text indicates.
Spastic Rachel Kramer-Lafayette (Kate Shea) has a way with words and puts razor-sharp points on all of her more intense moments on stage. When she goes in for the offensive against the Toni character, Shea ground her emotional charge in a jittery physicality, which livens up the scene. Her overly-maternal reactions to youngest child Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette (Michael Greenleaf, who literally runs in and out of the scene from time to time but is adorable in doing so) are on point with the rigidity of the character. Watch Shea when she goes into confrontational mode with husband Bo Lafayette (Sam Lunay.) As the remaining male figurehead of the Lafayette family, Lunay is somewhat uneven in his overall delivery of the Bo character, but these slower more uncertain moments come in scenes played opposite of the Toni character. His striking meltdown, which occurs near the show’s conclusion, is powerful, packed with emotion, and is well expressed.
David Dieudonne is bringing a fabulous A-game to the stage as Franz/Frank (they’re the same character, sort of) even if he does look a bit too young for the role. (Well done, Mr. Dieudonne on having an ageless face.) When Dieudonne delves into the dysfunction of his character and extrapolates a series of interactions and emotions with the other characters in the play, they all stem from a rich and authentic place of catharsis, even when they’re only little exchanges. This is most definitely true of his “awkward moment” with Rhys (Conor Doahue, who is picture-perfect and masterfully moody as the young adult son of Toni) on the couch in the middle of the night. When Dieudonne experience’s the character’s “baptismal revelation” it spikes through the ceiling as the show’s most explosive and dynamic moment.
It is rare that a supporting cast works so hard to overcoming such pacing challenges with a script to make the show still absolutely worth seeing, but this cast of Appropriate at Silver Spring Stage has done exactly that and deserves to be rewarded with audience patronage for all of their impressive efforts.
Running Time: 3 hours with one intermission
Appropriate plays through April 28, 2019 at Silver Spring Stage, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets call the box office at 301-593-6036 or purchase them online.