Family troubles are an essential subject for drama, particularly the difficult relationships between parent and child, as well as strained interactions between siblings. Plenty of writers are keen to explore the complex possibilities that the family unit can offer; Chekhov found plenty of variety in the roles, expectations and desires of his Three Sisters, and Shakespeare used the same format with the competing daughters of King Lear. More recently, Jack Thorne used three siblings struggling with a parental legacy of social change while now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins builds his narrative around two brothers and their elder sister drawn home to sell their family’s plantation house after the death of their father. With expectations of responsibility and questions of parental favoritism, three turns out to be a significant number.
Appropriate premiered in the States in 2014 and now makes its UK debut as part of Michael Longhurst’s first season at the Donmar Warehouse. Europe was a clear statement of intent from the new Artistic Director, an unusual almost abstract work that spoke to ideas of community, society and the creation of shallow boundaries of exclusion. Appropriate equally pulls no punches in its examination of the ever-presence of history and the extent to which we ever fully know those we love. Longhurst is taking a broad canvas approach to his programme, telling intimate stories focused on a small group of people but with a much wider resonance for how we define and determine the values we live by.
Jacobs-Jenkins’s play has three key drivers; first unpicking the decades-old relationships between three very different siblings which are discovered through detailed character study and the shifting nature of their conversations across a 24-hour period; second Jacobs-Jenkins looks at how attitudes, expectations and behavioural lessons are passed down the generations to understand how children actively differ from their parents and the outlooks they osmotically absorb to frame those behaviours; and finally, the central narrative is dominated by a pseudo-mystery plot in which the discovery of an unsavoury and ethically dubious photo album alters everyone’s perspective on their own past and its meaning.
It is the first of these which is by far the most successful aspect of Appropriate, and one that links Jacobs-Jenkins to the great American dramatists of the last hundred years. Character is at the heart of these plays and managing their interaction is a skill that can seem effortless with a great dramatist. Act One is possibly Appropriate’s most interesting and carefully drawn section as the audience is immediately and bracingly immersed in the middle of a contentious family arrangement. Toni and Bo are playing-out years of the same fight about providing day-to-day care or monetary support for the ailing father bolstered by petty resentments, jealousies and assumptions about the other’s lives with their own spouses and children.
Into this wanders Frank (now styling himself as Franz), the younger brother with a shady secret and a much younger fiancee who hasn’t been seen for 10-years and now expects his share of the estate sale as well as a chance to make amends. What unfolds here gives rise to and sets in motion the contentious business of the rest of the play, whilst instantly conveying the troubled complexities of a family that we, as outsiders, will never fully understand.
Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Ola Ince for the Donmar, commands this first Act with skill, creating a densely wordy but fascinating slice of Lafayette family life where even the most mundane discussions about sorting their father’s effects are loaded with recrimination, grievance and expectation. In these early scenes there are tones of Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts and August Wilson in the creation of the potentially combustible family dynamic, and the inter-generational clashes of perspective that underscores the story.
The unfolding pace with its narrative dead-ends and focus on the small everyday conversations that eventually unite to form a tapestry-like impression of their family are also reminiscent of Annie Baker whose plays The Flick and John have been widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. As a writer, Jacobs-Jenkins sees clearly how his unti fits into the wider socio-historic and political context of the South, but also how they co-exist in their more modern urban experience of US professional living in the northern States.
What unfolds in the other strands of the play is less self-assured, never quite matching up to the promise of this opening portion, and Jacobs-Jenkins moves away from these core sentiments where the purpose of Appropriate becomes a little muddled. The stories given to the younger generation are predominantly played as comedy, and while this may not be intentional, it is harder to accept the credibility of characters who feel like thinly-drawn stereotypes from every sardonic, grumpy teenager textbook without adding meaningfully to the overall story. The comedy can amuse but too often it either misses the mark or competes with Appropriate’s dramatic structure, as with the farcical fight two-thirds of the way through, making the three siblings more ridiculous than empathetic – the fact you retain an interest in Toni and Bo especially is credit to how well they are drawn.
There is also a strand of mysticism and haunting that feels at best half-hearted, as though Jacobs-Jenkins was unable to decide if he wanted to write a saga, a comedy of a ghost story. These spooky happenings include mysterious breezes and poltergeist-type activity – ably created by designer Fly Davis and the stage management team – such as lamps switching on unexpectedly and ornaments falling over. There is frequent reference to the barely visible graveyard beyond the window in which the bodies of plantation slaves were buried, and the characters of Frank and his girlfriend River are motivated by a New Age sensibility where spiritual connection to the earth and its rhythms are their grounding point.
But while these strands exist and the question of how the building’s heritage affects the modern family is uppermost, the ghostly elements are fairly light-weight and hardly integral to the central story. The ideas compete for attention with the comedy and family aspects without feeling fully formed as a concept or properly woven through the action. What works best is Jacobs-Jenkins’s sense of reality through the charged and often pounding dialogue that so effectively captures the family dynamic.
To emphasise this, Davis has designed a detailed set that revels in the infinite detail of the former patriarch’s lifestyle. This absent character is well conjured through the hoarded junk that overwhelmingly litters the living room set at the start of the play as Toni picks her way through ancient cameras, dolls, books and tat from an entire life. But beneath, Davis subtly suggests the grandeur of these plantation houses with a sweeping (now uncarpeted) staircase, a decorated frieze around the upper level and the large windows with fitted shutters to protect from tropical storms. It is evocative enough to feel like Big Daddy’s home from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Boss Finley’s mansion from Sweet Bird of Youth, a feeling of heat and oppression hanging among the faded grandeur.
Central to this reverence for the past is Monica Dolan’s Toni who struggles to accept the various aspersions cast on her beloved father by the rest of the family and their readiness to leap to conclusions with only an unmarked set of photographs as evidence. Dolan suggests Toni’s fury throughout the play as a having an ebb and flow that reacts to events but always places herself at the centre of conversations. As the senior sibling and matriarch, Toni is hugely resentful of the disproportionate share of caring she has had to undertake first for her brothers and later for their father, unappreciatedly sacrificing her own relationships to tend to the family. Many of the arguments that follow stem from this perceived disparity in fairness.
But Dolan is such a wonderful stage actor because she never lets Toni feel out of reach of the audience. Her volability and competitive control are sympathetic as she suggests deeper vulnerabilities stemming from the expectations placed on her as the eldest, and an inability to measure-up to Bo especially. Whether she is seen by them as a good sister, daughter and mother-figure combust with some sympathy in Dolan’s layered and thoughtful performance.
Matching her is Steven Mackintosh as the second child Bo, a family man clinging to a successful job and feeling the pressure to assume financial responsibility for his less self-assured siblings while raising his own children with solid moral values. Pulled in many directions by his wife and sister, Mackintosh’s Bo appears as a man with no clear desire of his own, a peacekeeping middle child in some respects navigating between the contentious elements in his life which bending under the weight of his own barely voiced concerns.
But it is later in the play when his own perspective comes into focus and Mackintosh presents a man trying to do the right thing while dealing with a variety of unspoken pressures to be the right kind of man in the right kind of job with the right kind of values. Exhausted by this, there is an underlying chemistry with Dolan’s Toni where Bo can be his true self, the long relationship with his elder sister suggesting that even on the basic level no one can entirely escape their past. Notable among the supporting characters is Jaimi Barbakoff as Bo’s wife, a prissy helicopter parent unafraid to speak her mind to the wider family that came with her marriage as soon as she senses any threat to her children’s morality.
Appropriate is part of a larger strand of American drama that uses the domestic to examine big socio-political questions about the modern era in an attempt to reframe what we know about the present. And while a couple of its elements are underdone, using the three-sibling structure Jacobs-Jenkins explores how even fairly recent national history can be sanitised and reduced when examined from only one perspective. Appropriate suggests that the past is never just the past.