This is a rave review of Appropriate, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now playing the Coal Mine Theatre. Reading this review is optional; seeing the play ought to be mandatory.
A few words about the plot. We are in a former plantation house in Arkansas in 2014. The patriarch of the Lafayette family died recently and his three mostly estranged children arrive to dispose of the house and its contents. There are ferocious arguments just about everything but one of the main concerns is the character of their father.
He was successful lawyer who lived in Washington for twenty years but returned to the plantation late in life where he died in the care of his daughter Toni (a fiery Raquel Duffy) and her son Rhys (Mackenzie Wojcik). His son Bo (Clay Powell) arrives with his wife Rachel (Amy Lee) and their children Cassie (Hannah Levinson) and Ainsley (Ruari Hamman). The youngest son Franz (Andy Trithardt) comes with his young wife River (Allison Beckwith).
Those are the eight people in the dilapidated former planation house. The vicious arguments, loud recriminations, vile accusations and despicable discoveries about the dead father come pouring in. No one takes a back seat. Toni is a malicious, vindictive and foul-mouthed woman who does not take prisoners as they say.
She attacks her brothers Bo and Franz and their wives. Rachel tells her that her father was an antisemite and she counters with a thundering voice full of venom and does not hesitate to call Rachel antisemitic names. Rachel is just as capable in delivering blistering retorts that would send anyone looking for cover. The brutal verbal assaults continue leaving no one (except the children perhaps) free from assault.
The enraged arguments continue among them and they get worse when a photo album is found with grotesque pictures of lynching and hanging of Black people. Some jars are found containing ears, genitals and other anatomical parts of Blacks. There is a mass cemetery of Blacks on the estate dating no doubt from the days of slavey.
In the third act, we see a confederate flag as the estate sale approaches. The children’s defence of their father withers for us when one of his grandsons, Ainsley, appears wearing a Ku Kluz Klan hood.
Singing cicadas are heard at the beginning of the play. The stage is dark and the insistent song of the insects rises to a loud crescendo. We hear that the cicada live the longest in their species – 13 years and appear only every eight years. Some crimes like those of the patriarch of the Lafayette family live forever.
Let me heap praise on the actors, Raquel Duffy plays the complex, abusive and enraged Toni. She does not hesitate to attack her bothers for being absent during their father’s illness and death. She is divorced, her son Rhys is problematic, and her rage is reduced only when her brothers try to pacify her. Duffy gives a towering performance.
Clay Powell is the more reasonable sibling who tries to pacify Toni and Franz and his own wife but he fights back when provoked. A stunning performance.
Franz is the pathetic brother who disappeared, changed his name and was found by the estate lawyers with difficulty. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict but there is more to him than that: he was also a paedophile.
He tries to apologize to his siblings and restore some dignity after a sordid past. We see him as a decent human being when he tris to steer Rhys away from his addictions. A sympathetic portrayal of a loser trying to reform himself. An excellent performance by Trithardt.
Amy Lee as Rachel proves that she can dish it out just as loudly as Toni, something that is against her character. But she provides a good antidote to Toni and her performance is second to none.
River is a flower child. Her hair is braided into a long ponytail and she looks like the flower child of yore or a native American. But she is the child of lawyers with no Indigenous blood. However, she believes in ghosts and spirits. She loves Franz and he credits her for his ability to cope. A fine performance.
The set by Steve Lucas and Rebecca Morris represents a living room that has seen better days and it is intelligently designed to be disassembled at the end of every performance and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, put back together again for the next show.
Ted Dykstra proves once again that he is one of the most talented directors around He can marshal phenomenal energy, outstanding performances and keep us at the edge of our seats for a great night at the theatre.
Coal Mine Theatre provides some of the best productions in Toronto and yet it is housed in a tiny space at Danforth and Woodbine in Toronto. The best deserves much better.
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins played until October 22, 2023, at the Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Ave. Toronto, (northwest corner of Woodbine and Danforth) www.coalminetheatre.com