A Review

Sparks Fly

By R. J. Donovan

You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family.

"Stick Fly," from the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, takes place during one very uncomfortable family getaway on Nantucket.  The family in question -- The LeVays  -- are well to do African-Americans who give new radiance to the term dysfunctional.

The production is directed by the Tony-nominated Kenny Leon, who's had a long relationship with the works of August Wilson, both at the Huntington and on Broadway.

The funny but complicated comedy pits one family member against the other as old wounds are ripped anew and long held secrets are laid bare.

We start with Kent (Jason Dirden), an aspiring author who's never been able to gain the approval of his demanding and outspoken father.  Kent intends to use the weekend gathering to introduce his folks to his fiance, Taylor (Nikkole Salter), an entomologist who's loud, opinionated and more than familiar with sticking her foot in her mouth. 

Brother Flip (Billy Eugene Jones), a preening, high priced plastic surgeon, has brought his white gal pal ("She's Italian"), Kimber (Rosie Benton) into the mix. Their attraction appears to be founded in their lack of a common race.

The previously mentioned patriarch of the brood, Joe (Wendell W. Wright), is a head-strong old bird, barking out orders and dispensing far from thinly veiled insults. 

The group is completed by Cheryl (Amber Iman), daughter of the family maid, who's filling in this particular weekend during her Mom's illness. Mrs. LeVay, who figures heavily into the plot, is often discussed, but never seen. 

Adding to the rolling sibling rivalry, it turns out that some of the weekend's guests have crossed paths before. And while it's unfair to give away the ultimate zinger of a secret that's revealed, suffice it to say that the play starts out focusing on the children and ends up shoving the parents into the spotlight.

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond, who's been a part of the Huntington's Playwriting Fellow program, delivers up a taut and, at times, uncomfortable portrait of a family knee deep in heated discussions of race, pecking order and relationships. The play's title is a reference to the unfortunate insects that get glued to a stick for study and experimentation under the microscope.  Defenseless in their surroundings, they must endure whatever stray torture comes their way.

As tense as all of this might sound, it's laugh out loud funny as the scenes spill from room to room, sometimes occurring simultaneously on David Gallo's beautifully designed set. Gallo deserves a special nod for the subtle addition of the elephant perched high on the bookcase.  While not everyone may have noticed it, the reference to "the elephant in the room" was clever and appreciated. As was the fact that Diamond has the characters playing board games all weekend.

While the cast is uniformly strong as the challenges and arguments rage back and forth, I found Salter a tad too belligerent as Taylor, and Dirden just the opposite -- a bit too meek. Benton is cool and calculating as the condescending WASP in the bunch. And as Joe, Wright is given the unenviable task of sketching a man who starts out obnoxious and ends up pitiful. To his credit, you never question that he is the character.

It's Amber Iman (above with Wright) as Cheryl who rises to the top by night's end. She's relaxed and funny and natural when called for, and then pulls the audience in during her her own moment of crisis.  Her speech about a father's love is just heartbreaking. 

In "Sticky Fly," The LeVays charge and retreat like most families. And also like most families, when a good sized group gathers for a weekend getaway, there's bound to be lot of baggage piled up at the front door.

"Stick Fly"is at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For The Arts, 527 Tremont Street, through March 28. For information, call 617-266-0800.

-- OnStage Boston




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