Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 38
 
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
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Music/Theater

(Photo credit T Charles Erickson)
SCRABBLE, ANYONE?: Race, gender, socio-economics, and family conflicts all come to a head when the McVay brothers return home to entertain guests for an eventful weekend at their family's luxurious Martha's Vineyard cottage in Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly," playing at McCarter's Berlind Theatre through October 14. The competitors — (L to R) Javon Johnson, Monette Magrath, Michole Briana White and Kevin T. Carroll — clash over the Scrabble board and elsewhere.

Race, Gender, Socio-Economics, and Family Clash in “Stick Fly;” Contemporary Comedic Drama Opens McCarter Berlind Season

Donald Gilpin

Kent LeVay, 31-year-old son of a prominent African-American brain surgeon, brings home his fiancée and a manuscript of the novel he has just written about “complicated Black folks with contemporary problems.”

“A writer communicates across worlds by effectively communicating the specificity of his own world,” observes one of the characters who has read this manuscript.

“It’s universal because I’m specific about the characters, the relationships,” Kent asserts.

So it is also with Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, an intriguing family drama, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 14. All six characters — four family members and two guests — who appear on stage in this well balanced, deftly choreographed ensemble piece come to life in vibrant, vivid, convincing detail. Even the two powerful offstage presences, the matriarch Mrs. LeVay and the housekeeper Ms. Ellie (present only on the other end of telephone conversations), become three-dimensional figures, fully alive in the intensifying drama.

Ms. Diamond’s milieu is the elite world of upper class African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. Whether your family is more like A.R Gurney’s upper crust WASPs, August Wilson’s downtrodden African Americans, Eugene O’Neill’s angst-ridden and entangled Irish-American Tyrones, Arthur Miller’s financially frustrated Lomans or even Sam Shepard’s haunted dreamers, you will probably understand and relate to Ms. Diamond’s LeVays.

The specifics of wealth and the unique issues of the African American in contemporary society are important here, but the play is also about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters and the universal verities of honor, love, forgiveness, understanding, and trust.

Kent (Kevin T. Carroll), the sensitive younger brother still searching to find himself in the face of much scorn from his highly successful, achievement–obsessed father (John Wesley), and Taylor (Michole Briana White), his intellectual, fatherless fiancée from a less privileged socioeconomic class, appear as the protagonists here. Their relationship most often takes center stage and the audience is most likely to identify with them and view the other characters and their actions through their perspective. But the success of this highly entertaining, newly re-written 2006 play lies largely in the fact that every character has an intriguing secret and a story to go along with it, and every character seizes at least a moment or two in the spotlight.

McCarter Theatre's production of Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly" will play at the Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place, through October 14. For reservations and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

Under the direction of Shirley Jo Finney, this outstanding, experienced cast succeeds in bringing all of the characters and their fascinating stories to life. Stick Fly makes for a long evening (two hours and forty-five minutes running time including one intermission), but it almost never drags. The humor, the colorful characters and their complex relationships, and the gradual revelations of the sordid McVay past all keep the audience’s curiosity and interest aroused.

After a brief prologue scene, which depicts the illuminating first meeting of Kent and Taylor at her estranged father’s funeral, the setting jumps forward one year and switches to the McVey’s huge Vineyard cottage, exquisitely detailed and extravagantly designed by Felix E. Cochren and lit by Victor En Yu Tan. The affluence and elegance of the scene, with beautiful vistas and a picturesque lighthouse in the distance, evoke the background of privilege from which the LeVays emerge and contrast with the shades of bitterness, sordidness, and hostility that arise during the eventful weekend.

As the lights rise on the LeVay living room, Cheryl (Julia Pace Mitchell), 18-year-old daughter of the housekeeper and virtually a member of the family, standing in during her mother’s illness, removes the sheets from the furniture in preparation for the arrival of the two sons, their guests and the father. As she uncovers one piece of furniture after another, listening to her iPod and dancing around the room, the audience sees a foreshadowing of the unveiling of deep personal and family secrets that will take place over the following hours of the play. One truth after another will be revealed in the crucible of human interactions against the backdrop of this seemingly benign setting.

Ms. Mitchell, though not always convincing as a teenager, presents a high-energy, humorous, and strong figure, thoroughly sympathetic in her sensitivity to her lower class status, in her unrequited affections for the older LeVay brother, and in her angry confusion as she increasingly realizes the price she has paid in her entanglements with the family. With her sharp, wry comic timing and her firmly grounded pragmatism, she provides a persuasive, powerful counterbalance to the high-brow, high-society pretensions of the LeVays and their guests.

Kent and Taylor arrive soon afterwards. Kent hopefully looks forward to introducing his fiancée to his parents and fearfully anticipates his father’s reactions to the manuscript of his novel, which has been accepted for publication by a small but reputable publisher. Taylor, rejected by her own father and in awe of the LeVays’ affluence (“Wow. Holy … Wow” is her reaction on arrival.) hopes that the family will like her. She does not suspect what bitterness and anger, what class and racial hostilities and what deep emotions from her past will be stirred as she encounters Kent’s older brother Flip (Javon Johnson), his white girl friend Kimber (Monette Magrath), Dr. LeVay, and Cheryl.

Ms. White embodies this troubled character with focus, clarity, and high spirits. Taylor is a scholar, an entomologist, exposing and analyzing the other characters as she collects and examines her insects throughout the play. But, like the eponymous “stick fly” that she describes, she herself, she fears, is also a creature pinned to a stick to be recorded, examined, studied, and perhaps ultimately discarded. Mr. Carroll’s Kent provides a worthy counterpart for her as he struggles under the harsh shadow of his father and aggressive brother.

Mr. Johnson’s appropriately named Flip, exuding suaveness and privilege, also finds himself pushed to the extreme — by his white girlfriend, by the appearance of a liaison from his past, and by the emerging secrets of his family history. Ms. Magrath, as the white interloper in this family scene, successfully portrays this character who develops from a one-dimensional mouthpiece of the intrusive rich white liberal perspective into a more sympathetic, credible figure, as complex as her African American lover and his family.

Mr. Wesley creates a memorable family patriarch to anchor this gathering. Lean, predatory, intellectual, seductive and sharply articulate — even more multifaceted and troubled than his offspring — Dr. Le Vay may remind viewers of O’Neill’s James Tyrone, Miller’s Willy Loman or Wilson’s Troy Maxson.

Plausibility gaps do arise here in the vast number of issues and intrigues that simultaneously threaten to overload the plot and perhaps also in the relationships and responses of the older brother Flip. But Ms. Finney maintains a swift upbeat pace; the production values are impressive, on target and tasteful; and the ensemble executes with virtuosity its finely choreographed dance of exploration and desire.

Stick Fly may lack the “heft” (to borrow another term from the intellectual discourse of the LeVays and their guests) of August Wilson, Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller’s tragic masterpieces. The LeVays are not really engaged in the kind of life-and-death struggles seen in earlier landmark works by those giants of American theater.

But, now in significantly re-written form since its productions in Chicago and Atlanta over the past two years, Stick Fly provides an original, entertaining, moving, and memorable evening of top-quality theater. Ms. Diamond, originally based in Chicago and now in Cambridge teaching at Boston University, is also the author of award-winning plays The Gift Horse and Voyeurs de Venus and of an acclaimed adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. She will be heard from in the future.

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