Last summer was packed with headlines touting the arrival of “Brood X,” which was not a postmillennial Cronenberg reboot but the name given to a trillion-ish cicadas ready to rejoin the world after more than a decade underground. For uncountable reasons, it felt right: in a moment of all-encompassing upheaval, why not dredge up some scary bugs?
Appropriate, which opened May 7 at the Imago Theatre in a production by Profile Theatre, dredges up some scary bugs of its own—cicadas among them. The show starts in sustained darkness, while the insects’ menacing, musical hiss ratchets up throughout the auditorium. It’s deep night. We’re not alone. And something unsightly is ready to emerge from the deep.
That something, at first, turns out to be Franz (Tyler Caffall), the black sheep of the Lafayette family, and his granola younger beau River (Elizabeth Rees). They’ve broken into Franz’s boxed-up childhood home—a grand, faded Arkansas plantation with sickly green walls—on the eve of an auction that will settle his late father’s estate.
It quickly becomes clear that Franz hasn’t been home much. Instead, family matters have fallen mostly to his older sister Toni (a fire-breathing Linda Hayden), recently divorced and freshly fired from her job as a vice principal, thanks to her delinquent son (Colin Kane). Also in the mix is Bo (a show-stealing Gavin Hoffman), the stoic, people-pleasey middle child who’s struck off to start his own upper-middle-class family in New York. The siblings and their attachments, reunited under an unhappy circumstance, are forced to cohabitate in their ancestral home while preparing to relinquish it forever.
If you’re already cataloging potential conflicts—class resentments, old rivalries, and big questions about what parents pass on to their children—you’re off to a strong start. Appropriate is deliberately modeled after the great American living room plays of the past century: bits of August: Osage County, Buried Child, and Long Day’s Journey into Night ricochet around the stage, recalibrated for freshness but always plenty recognizable. What makes Appropriate unique (and extraordinary), though, is the way it manages to contextualize those shards of its dramatic forebearers without diluting their power.
Early in the action, Bo’s young son (Nico Spaulding) stumbles on a photo album bearing some horrifying imagery that reminds us—and the Lafayettes—that the show’s interpersonal dramas are unfolding on the grounds of a former plantation. Responses to the album differ. Toni refuses to believe something so vile could ever have belonged to her father; Bo’s wife Rachael (Sarah Fay Goldman, who serves Andie MacDowell throughout) wants to turn it into a teaching moment. But mostly, the characters push the discovery down and barrel ahead with their own squabbles. They don’t know what to do with it.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does. An award-winning Black playwright known for tackling provocative subjects in plays like Gloria and An Octoroon, Appropriate is Jacobs-Jenkins’ only work written explicitly for an all-white cast. He has a diamond-sharp ear for the way contemporary white Americans stumble through conversations about race, and he regularly troubles the play's already-turbulent waters by returning to the photo album and referencing a slave-filled graveyard on the Lafayettes’ property. Appropriate’s surface tale of siblings wrestling with their pasts, plenty compelling on its own, is thus regularly haunted by the moral rot of its setting, which was much uglier much more recently than anyone onstage would like to admit.
The show never argues, as a lesser show might be tempted to do, that one force should completely cancel out the other. Jacobs-Jenkins understands the fallacy of the zero-sum game, and maintains staggering empathy for each of his characters—anti-Semites, racism-apologists, and sex offenders among them—even as he makes no excuses for them. But he also knows how corrosive unprocessed trauma is, no matter how distant it might seem. Rather than resort to smugness, he simply presents the funny, bruising tale of a family learning to live with itself, and then folds in the cognitive dissonance of trying—and then refusing—to square that process with 400 years of institutionalized evil.
It could be a woozy mix. In his hands, it's positively piercing.
Luckily, Profile's creative team is equipped for the balancing act. Director Jerry Ruiz keeps things moving, never letting the pace flag over what could be a long two-and-a-half hours. He maintains a tone of poignant comedy throughout, and carves out room for something more chilling when necessary. Profile’s production gets that Appropriate is fundamentally a ghost story, and it also understands how fun it can be to watch a riled-up family scream at one another.
Ruiz never lets anyone in the cast tip into caricature, instead helping his actors locate the centers of pain from which all their characters operate. As Bo, Hoffman is note-perfect: exasperated, gentler than you might expect, and so desperate to maintain the illusion of peace that he becomes pathetic without ever landing as fully contemptible. (His early, disdainful East Coast pronunciation of "Oregon" as "Ore-gone" made me literally pump my fist.) Hayden's Toni is the brassiest, showiest role, and she wrings laughs and pathos out of nearly every scene. (The teenagers, though, it must be said, often scan more like graduate students.)
The set—in constant, telling disarray—was shrewdly designed by Inseung Park, and is even more shrewdly utilized by Ruiz, who turns it into a battlefield. He frequently positions warring characters on opposite sides of the living room couch like MMA fighters, and takes full advantage of the stage's depth, dropping visual gags in the back and creating a few tableaus that hint at Jacobs-Jenkins' own layering.
And the costumes, by Jaymee Ngernwichit, are sneakily brilliant. Contemporary theatrical dress can sometimes feel like an afterthought, with actors wearing more or less what they might find in their closet at home; in Ngerwichit's hands, every garment matters. Consider Bo's Westchester Dad zip-up vest, or Rachael's Ann Taylor cardigans, or the slightly too-loud Portlandness of River's vegan-chef-who-believes-in-spirits getups. These are people begging to be seen in a particular light, and they wear that effort plainly on their bodies.
The evening ends with the same cicadas that welcomed us. By then, we've heard a young character marvel at the insects' mythic life cycle—emerge, sing, mate, die. We've also watched a family spin out, come halfheartedly back together, and believe they've reached enlightenment, even as we know they have not. As with all of its subject matter, Appropriate isn't especially prescriptive about what the cicadas mean, but their music hits ours ears differently when the lights come up. Is it an indictment? A threat? A reminder of the ugliness buzzing beneath our own feet?
One thing’s for sure: we leave knowing something we didn't—and hoping we're able to pinpoint exactly what that is sooner rather than later.
7:30 p.m. Wed–Sat, 2 p.m. Sun through May 22, Imago Theatre, $35–55