If you remember a trip to the
shore as a period of absolute freedom - a time when you cut loose and let it all hang out - a journey into the land of Stick
Fly by Lydia Diamond, where all the social censors are disabled, will be a freeing, though unsettling experience.
Now playing at the Arena Stage (to 2/7), the playwright examines issues and divisions of race as well as class, gender, and
generation in an exclusively elite African-American world at Martha's Vineyard. The striving for status and social
acceptance that permeates the play should strike a chord with A-list Washingtonians and their wannabees.
Diamond's title - an entomological technique for immobilizing and studying a fly - promises to delve into the nether regions
of the human condition. We are about to confront racism (forward as well as reverse), infidelity, social snobbery, elitism,
greed, and more in those around us and ourselves. The fly is promptly discarded in the play's handy metaphor; too
close an examination kills the object in question, a lesson for all truth seekers.
Directed by Kenny Leon,
who pushes all the right buttons, this is a decidedly impressive, up-tempo production, one which wrings every laugh and nuance
out of Ms. Diamond's sociological and psychological script. The casting and the acting are first-rate; and while
the individual performances are of a high caliber, each serves the character and writer in a most satisfying ensemble effort.
Set in the household of the LeVay family, somewhere in or around the Black enclave of Oak Bluffs, the action opens
on a homecoming of sorts; everyone arrives piecemeal, encumbered by baggage from the past. Kent (Jason Dirden), also
known as Spoon, comes with a novel and his fiancé Taylor (Nikkole Salter), a grad student, in tow, both of whom he
plans to introduce to the family. The engagingly defiant younger son as played by Mr. Dirden has opted for letters over
a profession, in opposition to his father Dr. Joseph LeVay (Wendell W. Wright), a neurosurgeon, while his intended comes seeking
acceptance. Ms. Salter gives her solipsistic character full emotional range, turning a one-track prodding whiner, into
a figure of touching vulnerability. She too is seeking paternal approval, but hers is a phantom: she's been abandoned
by a famous father she never knew, writer James Bradley Scott, first when he takes on a new family, then by his death.
The older son Flip or Harold (Billy Eugene Jones) is a plastic surgeon used to getting his own way, especially with women.
From the college-age household helper Cheryl (Amber Iman), who has a crush on him, to his arriving white lover Kimber (Rosie
Benton), Mr. Jones shows his character's charm - aloof, privileged, and playful - spoiled to his eyeteeth. It
turns out also that he had a "brief encounter" with Taylor. This guy gets around!
As we wait for
the coming of Kimber, described in code as "Italian," it becomes apparent that many unseen characters are hovering
over this house. The absent elders include the aforementioned Mr. Scott, Cheryl's mother Ms. Ellie, and Mrs. LeVay.
Individually and collectively they exert a profound influence over the characters for things both said and unsaid. (There's
a big secret awaiting discovery in the final act.)
Ms. Benton is worth the wait. She
portrays Kimber, an inner-city social worker, as a savvy "got it together" upper class gal with heart and gumption,
ready to dispense a dose of hard-earned wisdom, lend a patient ear, or mix it up with her chiefly female adversaries.
She carries her burden lightly; not much is expected of her in her circle, where it's "2.0 and go" and it's
a struggle to get seen for who she truly is, let alone acknowledged. First Taylor, then Cheryl light into her for largely
perceived slights and fur really flies in extended and provocative scenes reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
Ms. Salter is no slouch as Taylor, but especially noteworthy is the delightful performance of Ms. Iman, a scene stealer of
the first order. Playing the youngest and the most disadvantaged, she dishes it out to all parties, with comedy and
It is good to see Mr. Wright back on the boards
at Arena. He brings an earnest dignity to the role of the father, comfortable in his perch as the family patriarch and at
times wrathful - he's a Big Daddy in this house of privilege, entitlement, and deception. At the conclusion, Dr.
LeVay's legacy will hang suspended in the air for all to observe and consider, real time.
a relatively new play by a relatively new, though up-and-coming writer, and as such, both play and playwright are works-in-progress.
On the downside, the script has a lot of back-story loaded in. It's quite talky - didactic at times - which does little
to advance the action and less to move what plot there is along. I'd consider shaving off about 15 minutes, particularly
at the end of each act: the first act lacks character consistency and leads to an uncertain transition or ending; the second
lacks closure. Still the mesmerized audience (in which I would include myself) is under the spell of these characters
who won't quit and it'll be a tough call where to place the knife. On the upside, Ms. Diamond has an ear for
snappy dialogue and an eye for compelling social dynamics. The multiple realities of the characters and their relationships
are effectively played out in split staging. And the many potent issues that are raised are a cause for celebration
in serious theater.
David Gallo's striking set is upscale and a bit modernistic, with a slanted and broken
wall separating the living room - where books are everywhere, followed by Black art - from the kitchen, a tight space
where a lot of the interactions (and actors) are crammed. His mahogany-green-tan palette gives the talented costumer
Reggie Ray plenty of room to work in his creative wardrobe; you'll marvel at the number and variety (what quick changes,
too!) Veteran designer Allen Lee Hughes is back at the Arena for the 65th time shedding light on human nature,
and sound designer, Timothy Thompson, delivers a funky and jazzy arrangement between scenes.
If you find
yourself a confirmed Stickhead after this encounter (or more) with the show, you might want to travel to Boston to see the
next iteration at the Huntington Theatre (2/19-3/21). Or to sample the efforts of tier one director Kenny Leon further,
check out his upcoming production of August Wilson's Fences on Broadway (opening 4/26) starring Denzel Washington
and co-starring Viola Davis. I'd like to be a fly on that wall!
Sound check: Excellent
Program Notes: Excellent, with input from dramaturg (Janine Sobeck), artistic director (Molly Smith), and managing director
(Edgar Dobie); and outstanding online presence with Virtual Dramaturg at Arena's website. As a patron, you can either hit the ground running or dig further in, following the performance
Applause meter: Highly recommended,
3 ½ + Hands
Photo credits: Scott Suchman
Runtime: 2 ½ hours with an intermission
© John F. Glass January 15, 2010 All rights reserved