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Appropriate
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2013-11-20

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Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; www.victorygardens.org; $20-$50 . Runs through: Dec. 8

The sins of the father, runs the quote, are visited upon their children. Long the basis for classical tragedy, this theme likewise permeates Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' multi-generational tale of ancestral legacies. The siblings who converge on the antebellum mansion constituting the seat of the venerable Lafayette clan following the death of its patriarch make passing reference to "evil" polluting their tribal bloodline. The household cemetery adjoining the former plantation's swampy Arkansas site also hints at past secrets long buried, and later, scenic designer Yu Shibigaki provides a stunt-effect drawn straight from Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher.

This is the play that its author may have meant to write, but only a few vestiges of it remain on the Victory Gardens stage. Whether as a result of advice by workshop mentors, literary associates, BFFs or combinations thereof, what could have been gripping family drama in the style of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller has been transformed into another August: Osage County knock-off, replete with raised-voice bickering 15 minutes into the first act and undiluted vitriol spewed forth with the stridency of dueling steamrollers at the 30-minute mark, all heartily enjoyed by theatergoers well-versed in post-Norman Lear comedy, who chortle at every "zinger" launched in the crossfire. You'd think that the discovery of a folio containing photographs of uncertain vintage, depicting atrocities of a distinctly Southern character, would impose a more somber tone on the proceedings—but it doesn't.

Can there be greater irony than actors doing their job so well that they totally subvert their play's intent? Miracle-man director Gary Griffin has assembled an ensemble of muscular troupers—including, among others, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Keith Kupferer, Stef Tovar and Cheryl Graeff—all doing what Chicago audiences have come to expect from their favorites. Vivid characterizations and agile timing conspire with a varied stage picture boasting a diversity of visual and vocal presences, to conceal the formulaic structure of a text incorporating a veritable catalogue of current playwrighting fashions. ( Did I mention the hitherto non-physically aggressive kinfolk erupting into a breezily inconsequential brawl in the latter part of the second act? )

This in no way diminishes the entertainment value of sneering at Dixieland culture and still participating in solemn post-show discussions on racism in this country. The dynamics connecting the Lafayettes to the Atreuses and Cadmuses—and, ultimately, to us—will have to wait for analytic dissection ( from a safe chronological distance, preferably ).


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