Jerome Preston Bates as Joe LeVay and Joniece Abott-Pratt as Cheryl
The Crazy Family is alive and thriving. I don’t mean in everyday life (though this will be confirmed for many of us in a few weeks at Thanksgiving dinner). I’m referring to the theater, where what has always been a favorite topic for American playwrights seems newly invigorated. Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, currently on stage in a marvelous production at the Arden, is just such a play — at once traditional, and boldly inventive.
Allow me a quick historical digression (I’ll get to Stick Fly soon, I promise). American family drama can be seen in two waves. The works of the First Wave — including Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night — emphasize the claustrophobic, inescapable nature of families, usually with a tone of unrelenting grimness. The Second Wave is a rethinking of the same theme — if we’re going to be immersed in family pathology, it seems to conclude, we might as well enjoy ourselves. These sprawling, darkly comedic works include some of my great favorites — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind and, more recently, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Stick Fly isn’t quite in the same class, but it claims the same territory.
Notice I’ve purposely avoided the term “dysfunctional.” The LeVay family of Stick Fly, with its imposing patriarch, neurosurgeon Joe LeVay (Jerome Preston Bates), and their gorgeous Martha’s Vineyard home, is so highly functional that most of us can only gape in awe. Dr. Joe has two accomplished sons, Flip and Kent, and the son’s fiancées, Kimber and Taylor, are brilliant, too. This bunch doesn’t wear its greatness lightly — within minutes of everyone’s arrival, we’ve had a summary discussion of their various careers (two medical doctors and two Ph.D. scientists among them) and academic pedigrees (Harvard, Exeter, etc.). We’ve heard a good-natured but pointed debate over the proper usage of “intrinsic,” “inherent” and “implicit.”
It would be easy to find the LeVays intimidating or downright annoying, but in Diamond’s skilled hands, they’re appealing. Beyond that, she’s making a point. The family’s success is hard-won (Did I mention they are African-American?), and they are justly proud of what they’ve achieved. But, Diamond equally seems to be telling us that even what looks like a perfect family has its crosses to bear. Taylor, the daughter of a distinguished academic and soon to be one herself, nevertheless struggles with a sense of abandonment and alienation. Kent, a deeply caring, nurturing person, is a disappointment to his father. Flip, a charismatic plastic surgeon, is also a bit of a cad. Kimber is white, which, to Taylor, at least, is a constant irritant. Then there’s Cheryl, the young girl taking care of the house — what’s her story? (And where in the world is Dr. Joe’s wife?)
Rather than spill Stick Fly’s many secrets, I’ll just say that the terrain is rocky and constantly shifting. I’d call it a good, rather than great, play — it’s at once too melodramatic and too tidy. But at its best, Diamond’s script positively zings with good lines and smart ideas.
And best of all — it’s funny and shocking at the same time. Director Walter Dallas applies a light touch and a sprightly pace to the proceedings, which, while never undercutting the serious side of Stick Fly, gives it a marvelous sense of lift. The acting is exceptionally fine across the board — these are difficult, complex roles, and they’re realized here with subtlety, especially by Joniece Abott-Pratt as a touchingly sweet Cheryl, U.R. as a louche, charismatic Flip, and Jessica Frances Dukes as the heartbreakingly conflicted Taylor. David P. Gordon’s scenic design — a scrumptiously comfortable estate — is ready for immediate occupancy.
Hats off to Arden Theatre — with Stick Fly following its highly praised production of Parade, and its Hamilton Family Arts Center soon to open down the block, this company is firing on all cylinders.
Through Dec. 22, $36-$48, Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
First Friday Focus: Camden up close, prejudice in photography and "skate of the art" installation
+ GRAVY STUDIO & GALLERY Vice named Gabriel Angemi, a city firefighter, its favorite street...
The Way Women See It: Reviewing "The Lady From the Sea"
EgoPo Classic Theater may be Philadelphia’s most intellectually bracing company. Artistic...
Painting the Town: Artists' views on Northern Liberties' changes
There’s a sort of privilege in listening in on the conversation between Ira Upin, Jennifer Baker,...