All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In the course of her script for “Stick Fly,” currently at the Arden Theatre, Lydia R. Diamond has one of her characters praise the novelist to whom she’s engaged for his ability to take a broad concept and sculpt it into engaging, emotionally accessible form by concentrating on the behavior and sentiments of his book’s individual characters.
Diamond obviously agrees with her character’s approach to composition because she takes the same tack in “Stick Fly,” a play about identity and family dynamics that delves into the sensitivity people have about their ethnic, educational, genealogical, or professional traits by closely examining a group that gathers for a weekend getaway in a posh, well-situated beach house on Martha’s Vineyard.
The house is ancestral. It was acquired by the industry of a great grandfather of the woman, often mentioned but never seen, who is the wife and mother of the party assembled, and it has the distinction of being one of the first estates owned by African-Americans on the Vineyard. Diamond strategically has one of her characters note that it sits in the section of the island usually populated by white families.
The LeVays are a distinguished group. The paterfamilias, Joe, is a successful Manhattan neurosurgeon. His older son, Flip, is also a doctor and also successful, but a plastic surgeon. The younger son, Kent, called Spoon by his fiancee, has postponed competing with his dad and brother for accomplishments so he could finish the aforementioned novel, one that has attracted publishers’ interest. Each son arrives with a girlfriend, Spoon with Taylor, an entomologist who spends mornings looking for insect specimens, and Flip, with Kimber, an expert in society’s effect on minority children, and who happens to be white. Not “Italian,” as Flip advertises to take some edge off of Kimber’s racial classification, but white, pure WASP, as Kimber attests herself. The congregation is completed by Cheryl, the daughter of the LeVay’s long-time housekeeper. Cheryl, now in her late teens, has grown up among the LeVay sons and is like a member of the family while having to realize she is, nonetheless, paid help who is pinch hitting for her ill mom on this particular weekend.
While Kimber’s presence causes some alarm and acrimony, Diamond is too shrewd and too ambitious to allow such an elementary wrinkle be the driving force of her play. She aims for and finds meatier game in the general contention between the LeVays, absent mother included, and the hair-trigger speed with which her various characters take and express umbrage at the slightest idea, attitude, argument, or opinion that might be different from their own. The LeVays and their guests are, in general so well-educated, so informed, so intelligent, and so philosophical, they cannot brook an alternative point of view. Resentment between the denizens of the Vineyard manse builds quickly and threatens to make divisions that will destroy any lasting semblance of family unity, especially if Flip and Spoon proceed with their intentions to marry Kimber and Taylor.
Emotions, backed by intellect, are worn on every sleeve. No one is impartial, and no one is immune. Many statements, accusations, and alleged wounds are minor when placed in broad perspective, but the LeVays and company don’t let anything rest or go unchallenged. In depicting the family and watching their restful weekend at the beach unravel with each barb or retort, Diamond takes the large theme of disharmony among people in general and illustrates the many ways it manifests itself by showing the individual tolerances, prejudices, and vulnerability of the extended LeVay clan.
Little is permitted to pass without comment or challenge in the LeVay home. Simple discussion is bound to be interrupted at every turn by an objection or hurt feeling. No alleged offense can be overlooked in the name of Taylor and Kimber getting acquainted or via a calm and civilized conversation that raises questions that can be addressed at a later time.
On the contrary, everyone thinks he or she has history, statistics, or some source of information on his or her side. When facts aren’t handy, the contentious lot will cite impressions or feelings from their own experience. No one doubts these impressions are untrue, but they are often personal and say more about the person revealing them than about the general situation on which they are meant shed defining light.
“Stick Fly” is in no way in one long session of bickering or catfighting. Though characters can become irritating because of the alacrity with which they ignite or enter into a fray, Diamond has populated her play with interesting, complex flesh-and-blood people who warrant attention and are worth hearing out. More importantly, director Walter Dallas and the Arden cast have mined each engaging facet of the characters, so while arguments might at times arise from someone being thin-skinned and another being obstinate, affection for the LeVays and desire for them to go on as a tight, Vineyard vacationing family outweigh any annoyance a family member or guest’s intense reaction to a seemingly innocent statement might cause.
Although Diamond’s arsenal includes some dramatic plot twists, secrets between characters that have to be revealed, most of the uproar derives from the individual character’s perception of their own identity. Places on the societal, educational, family, and LeVay scales are crucial to Diamond’s creations. Using a combination of earned credentials and personal experience, any LeVay or visitor, especially a visitor, may react with rapid rancor at anything that strikes them as wrong or unjust, especially if the matter has to do with the way a character perceives he or she has been treated and particularly if that treatment is perceived to be based on race, class, or economic status.
Taylor is particularly flinty. She initiates most the heated discussions. She brings up her belief she always had to perform better than others and that she needed to achieve more because she is not a child of privilege, as Spoon is, and the other LeVays are. Taylor, more than others, feels she has had to overcome a racial struggle that has gone on for generations with no end in sight. Jessica Frances Dukes gives a performance as complex as Taylor’s many conflicts and as winning as Taylor is in spite of her constant baiting and arguing.
Identity isn’t the only theme Diamond puts on the table. Two of the characters have issues with famous fathers who seem to have time for everything in life but them. Spoon cannot get the approval Flip receives from Joe because he has not yet made a mark on the world, and Joe believes he wasted an expensive education. Both visiting women learn things about their intended spouses and the LeVay family they may find disconcerting or unattractive. The relationship between the LeVay brothers is also strained, and not only because of their different levels of success or the enmity between their fiancees. Ego is often as important as identity in “Stick Fly.” Getting to the truth about basic matters like love and compatibility is as well.
Diamond has crafted an entertaining, thought-provoking pieces that raises ideas worthy of deliberation and shows how the kinds of conflicts that affect the LeVays — where one stands, how one is regarded, how one is treated, what causes one to be hurt or take umbrage — are exact ones that burden people throughout the world.
I fear I give the impression that “Stick Fly” is heavy or composed of one long and oversensitive argument.
Such an impression would be untrue. “Stick Fly” is a comedy with serious overtones. The issues it raises derive from the individual characters, each one a bundle of confidence and insecurity, each one looking to be comfortable and accepted in a wide world and in close family confines, each one working at some level to make peace with him or herself.
The play has as many light, comic passages as it has scenes of import. The Arden production is measured and well paced so as to let all of Diamond’s themes to come forth while keeping you involved and entertained by what happens in each progressing scene.
Taylor can be the subject of a play on her own, but Diamond is more generous and offers an array of characters who command your attention and have needs to be met in spite of each of his or her remarkable accomplishments.
“Stick Fly” is a slice of life that lets you see individual angst while opening a window to a bigger picture. Its title refers to an entomologist’s practice of gluing flies to stick so he or she can study movements and characteristics that cannot be seen when a fly is in motion. The insect flies too fast for the human eye to discern all that is happening. By pasting the fly to a stick, the scientist can slow the insect’s motion to a manageable pace and examine traits that would go unknown if the entomologist had to depend on his or her naked eye. Diamond also slows “Stick Fly’s” pace so the audience can examine each character, something that might be impossible if they were always together and fussing at each other. Her technique works. Diamond’s play and Arden production are worth seeing.
Walter Dallas is as intent as Lydia R. Diamond to present a broad and complete look at the LeVay family and the worlds they represent. Characters, except for Taylor, move with familiar ease about the LeVay home. Group scenes are clear and let you hear plainly who is advancing what point of view and who objects to it. Dallas’s direction lets you see the LeVays as a unit while making sure all individual stories are understood and played for their maximum dramatic value.
The Arden cast is uniformly good.
Casting Dukes as Taylor was particularly inspired. In the first scenes, with her free-sprung hair confined under a kerchief, Dukes’s Taylor looks as if she might be from a different class from the LeVays. In second act scenes, kerchief and eyeglasses abandoned, you see Dukes is quite beautiful and very much on a par with her intended husband’s family. Mostly, Dukes gives Dallas’s production its center. Taylor may have a quick fuse, but she is also the one who strives to make things easier for others and who wants the weekend to go well in spite of her outbursts and the grudges they engender. Dukes has to walk a fine line so Taylor doesn’t irritate the audience beyond caring about her. She succeeds. She illuminates all of Taylor’s strengths and weaknesses. Even if you wish Taylor could relax within herself and use her professional achievements against what she feels so deeply as the injustice of the world, you want her to be with Spoon and find a happiness for ever after.
A second complex performance is contributed by Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Cheryl, the housekeeper in lieu of her mother, and someone who has to balance her own feelings as she deals with jealously that is based less on race than for her affection for one of the LeVay sons and copes with a revelation that makes her question her place in a home she’s known her entire life. Abbott-Pratt’s Cheryl provides needed energy at the top of the play, amusement because of her reactions in the middle of the play, and heart at the end.
U.R. is so natural as Flip, you’d think you were visiting him and him alone at his Vineyard house. Flip is proud and egotistic. He is also the most practical and least politically interested of the LeVays. U.R. conveys this self-contentment by not being as on edge as his brother is or as concerned with all the contention going on under the LeVay roof. Flip is comfortable in his privilege and aware that he’s made the most of his opportunities. He’ll enjoy being Dr. LeVay, try to talk sense to others, put some complicated business into perspective, and get along just fine.
Kent, or Spoon, is used to being the butt of LaVey jokes. Flip joshes him gently but pointedly. Joe, his father, lashes into him with scorn bordering on contempt. Biko Eisen-Martin finds the vulnerable part of Spoon, as he deals with Taylor as well as his father and Flip. He also displays the human core that reveals Spoon as an artist and as someone whose sensibilities may be more tender than his dad’s or brother’s but not so much that they prevent him from pursuing life on his terms and with a sweeter attitude towards people and the world.
Julianna Zinkel plays Kimber as undaunted by the dynamics of the LeVay family or the attacks from Taylor. Zinkel’s Kimber is self-assured and not dependent on any one man’s attention to assess her worth. She doesn’t buy into the notion that a non-minority cannot comprehend a minority’s life. Her career teaches her the opposite. She is also unafraid to stand her ground even if she may say something that will set Taylor off anew. Zinkel has a dignity and poise that match Kimber’s.
Jerome Preston Bates, as the father, Joe, has his best moments when he channels Sidney Poitier and draws out commands or ideas in a slow, one-syllable-at-a-time matter. When he first enters, Bates seems to throw off the timing and tone of Dallas’s production. He seems to grow into Joe in later scenes, especially those in which he has to deal with Cheryl.
David P. Gordon’s set is so realistic and looks so comfortable, you hope to meet a LeVay and wangle an invitation for a Vineyard weekend.
Lighting designer Thom Weaver has a challenge because of the sections of Gordon’s set that are outdoors. Because of their proximity to indoor locations, you never get a sense of the time of day in scenes that take place on the porch. Also, I don’t whether to complain to Weaver or Dallas, but one neglect in the Arden production bothered me through the entire play. The front door is at the top of the stage, just to the left of stage center. That door has windows that allow the LeVays , and the audience, to see outside. Yet, no one thought to light the stage area on the offstage side of the door. This renders “Stick Fly’s” overall design incomplete. The light outside the door is always dark, so scenes you know take place in the daytime look ludicrous. Worse is when one character comes to the door in the morning and looks as if he’s arriving in the middle of the night. This oversight is easy to fix, and Weaver should address it before “Stick Fly’s” run ends on December 22.
“Stick Fly” runs through Sunday, December 22 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and selected Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $48 to $36 and can be ordered by calling 215-922-1122 or going online to www.ardentheatre.org.