At the Writers (Nichols) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – “Stick Fly” is a prime example of the “dysfunctional family” style in modern American theater. The drama follows a familiar pattern, with a group of characters, mostly related, gather at a single location for a domestic visit. The characters exchange breezy chit chat but the encounters steadily ascend to the boiling point as secrets are revealed and long buried grievances and resentments are exposed. At the end, characters depart, possibly wiser but maybe just emotionally exhausted.
“Stick Fly” received its premiere in Chicago in 2006 and has been popular in regional theaters, along with a short Broadway run in 2011 and 2012. The play has been revived at the Writers Theatre and typifies the dysfunctional family format, except that it deals with upscale African American characters (plus one significant white character) instead of the more common all-white middle and upper class extended family.
The action takes place during a three-day weekend at Martha’s Vinyard, a Massachusetts resort island popular with the upscale set. The setting is the LeVay cottage, presided over by patriarch Joe LeVay, a prominent neurologist. The black LeVay family owes its property on the island to a gift awarded generations ago by a wealthy white man who gave the land to the family after a LeVay boat skipper rescued the man from drowning.
The play starts with the appearance of LeVay’s two adult sons at the family vacation house. Kent is a rudderless but possibly talented writer and Flip, a self satisfied successful plastic surgeon. They have descended on the father with their two romantic interests, Kent’s fiancé Taylor, an entomologist, and Kimber, the white character. The sixth character is young Cheryl, substituting as the family maid for her mother, who is suffering from a serious illness offstage. Cheryl starts out on the margin of the family gathering but by the final scenes she has taken over the play because of a revelation that sets all the characters off into toe- to-toe verbal acrimony.
“Stick Fly” is a long play by today’s standards, running more than 2½ hours. It has very little physical action, consisting almost entirely of dialogue that rises to the boiling point as Diamond explores matters of race, class, privilege, and family. The exposure of Cheryl’s family secret raises the emotional heat to a frenzy of recrimination late in the show that winds down into a kind of peace among all the characters. But along the way Diamond has provided her characters with some incendiary verbal arias, especially by Taylor.
There is a cloud of soap opera that hovers over the characters as they deal with touchy family relationships. Kent resents his father’s dismissive attitude and favoritism toward his smug and patronizing brother. The revelation about Cheryl’s background comes as no surprise and mainly allows the characters to exchange operatic volleys of bickering. Diamond’s play may be talky, but it is often incisive talk delivered with precision and intensity by the gifted ensemble.
The “Stick Fly” director is Ron OJ Parson, who has delivered quality productions for decades locally. Under Parson’s guidance the actors are all totally comfortable in their roles, never stagy even when the dialogue gets a overripe with emotion. The characters move fluidly in and out of doors and up and down stairways to keep the audience eye engaged. The play could be shorter while still making its major points but the Writers staging is never language bound.
As presented at the Writers, the three females dominate. The playwright has given them the best speeches and the fullest personalities. The three males contribute supporting roles, though father LeVay could be a more dramatic character given more stage time. He is really the instigator of the hostilities that divide the other characters and he needs more dramatic space to flesh out his personality. David Alan Anderson does what he can with this pivotal role but we still need to know him better. Eric Girard’s Kent and DiMonte Henning’s Flip are both good in their narrowly defined characters but as maneuvered by the playwright their female consorts upstage them throughout the action.
Jennifer Lattimore, who now ranks among the finest and most versatile actresses in Chicagoland theater, is the first among equals as the outspoken Taylor, who looks at the economic privilege enjoyed the LeVays and Kimber with fierce resentment. I suspect most audiences will vote for Ayanna Bria Bakari’s Cheryl as the performance of the night. We first meet her as Cheryl happily dances around the stage doing her maid chores, but by the end of the play her bitterness and outrage and sense of injustice dominates. Kayla Raelle Holder nicely integrates her white character into the black environment of the story. She seems too good for the self absorbed Kent, but the heart has its reasons.
Linda Buchanan makes an invaluable contribution to the success of the production with her multi-level and detailed set, down to the profile of a sail boat gliding back and forth in the background and paintings works by the black artist Romare Bearden hanging on the walls. Caitlin McLeod designed the costumes, Claire Chrzan the lighting, and Christopher M. LaPorte the sound.
“Stick Fly” will be most appreciated by viewers who enjoy crackling dialogue and performances of spot-on realism. The revelation centering on Cheryl goes on too long and if the playwright chooses to cut her script that’s the place to start. But mostly Diamond’s writing is articulate and stimulating and the familiarity of the dysfunctional tropes in the narrative is a minor price to pay for the vibrant dialogue vibrantly performed. The play’s title refers to the practice of entomologist Taylor gluing house flies to a stick so she can study the insect’s speedy flying patterns. Its precise relevance to the storyline eluded me.
“Stick Fly” gets a rating of
“Stick Fly” runs through March 15 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.