When a parent or loved one dies, the toughest task is poring over personal effects, remembering, sharing, nostalgically recalling precious moments and time together.
But when a family is estranged, not only from the deceased but from each other, the task is more challenging.
That’s the crux of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 Obie award-winning, sardonic, two-act mystery, “Appropriate,” making its New England premiere, through Oct. 10, with SpeakEasy Stage Company, featuring a Boston star-studded cast.
Although Jacobs-Jenkins is an African-American playwright writing about a well-educated, middle-class Southern white family, he makes it explicitly clear - “Appropriate” isn’t about race. The subject is subtly implied, but not explored.
“Appropriate” isn’t just a story about family loss, either. It goes deeper, much deeper. There aren’t just skeletons in the closet or accumulated debris at the five-generation, Lafayette family’s two-tiered crumbling, dilapidated, old slave plantation in Arkansas (impressive set design by Cristina Todesco). Amid the accumulated piles of clutter, there’s a typical photograph album with atypical photos- the type you hide in the back of the closet so nobody else sees them.
There are pickling and jam jars, too, that don’t contain the typical homemade preserves, but mysterious, bizarre human artifacts. Wen-Ling Liao’s eerie lighting and Arshan Gailus’ battery of sound effects enhance the production’s mystery with seemingly paranormal blackouts and sudden events.
And, hey, how about deceased Dad’s funny Halloween costume, with its conical white hat, cut-out eyes, and cape, that little grandson Ainsley (talented Brendan O’Brien) discovers, dons, and proudly parades downstairs in?
Everyone - especially oldest sister Toni,(marvelous Melinda Lopez), who took care of Dad for many years- knows Dad was a gentle, loving man, she says, whose life fell apart when their mom died. Everyone, that is, excluding son Bo’s Jewish wife, Rachael,(Tamara Hickey), who recalls hearing her father-in-law refer to her with an anti-Semitic slur.
The family has gathered to pore through years of accumulated stuff, sell the place, and return to their respective lives, which normally is the appropriate thing to do.
But in “Appropriate,” nothing seems to be the right thing anymore, especially among this dysfunctional group.
Toni, recently divorced and mother of troubled teen-age son, Rhys, (Eliott Purcell) has sacrificed her life and personal happiness caring for her aging dad in his final throes of illness. Now, she must defend her father’s honor and manage this post-death mess, amid the throes of their gruesome discoveries. Estranged brother Frank, now known as Franz, (nicely portrayed by Alex Pollock) his New Age girlfriend River’s name for him, returned home not only for his father’s funeral. In several pleas, he apologizes,saying he wants to make amends for all the wrongs he committed in his youth and the shame and pain he caused the family. Airy-headed River urges him on, interceding with his siblings, even when they wage a full-scale battle.
Big brother Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) is successfully established in the Big Apple, with Rachael, Ainsley and teenage daughter, Cassidy, (Katie Elinoff), whose laidback curiosity during this family debacle is as horrifying as the situation itself.
Strangely enough, the family isn’t fighting about money. Deep, old wounds and memories surface, haunting them.
Jacobs-Jenkins‘ play focuses on this family torn asunder, but some familial aspects appropriately apply to us all, creating fascinating post-show discussion all the way home.
BOX INFO: SpeakEasy Stage Company opens its new season with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ two-act, award-winning mystery, appearing through Oct. 10, at Boston Center for the Arts, Roberts Studio Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m. ; Sunday, 3 p.m., Oct. 8, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25, senior, age 25-under discounts; student rush also. Call 617-933-8600, visit SpeakEasyStage.com or the Box Office.