When asked in an interview how “Stick Fly” came about, playwright Lydia R. Diamond said she set out to write a “well-made play” that also was “fun.” She went on to explain that she wanted to explore fatherhood, interracial relationships, how we look at one another, and how we perceive that we're being viewed.
“Stick Fly,” which premiered at Chicago's Congo Square Theatre in 2006, went on to Broadway in 2011, and is enjoying a well-acted revival at Writers Theatre, does all that and more. Deftly directed by Ron OJ Parson to mine the humor as well as the melodrama and a dash of mystery, it combines sitcom and soap opera into a dysfunctional family dramedy that tackles a host of issues without losing sight of human relationships. Though occasionally bogged down by diatribes and arguably too long (at more than two-and-a-half hours), the evening is redeemed by compelling characters, especially the women.
Set over the course of a 2005 summer weekend in the Martha's Vineyard summer home of the LeVays, the play begins with Cheryl (Ayanna Bria Bakari) ebulliently dancing around as she pulls sheets off the furniture, straightens up, and readies the house for guests. We soon learn that she's filling in for her mother, the longtime maid who is gravely ill. A recent high-school graduate who's heading off to college, Cheryl also is super smart and has grown up feeling like a member of the family. With this
canny opening, Parson shows us a young African American woman who is comfortable with herself—and he also sets us up for the shocking revelation that will turn her world upside down and leave her shaken and angry.
Although the house is in Edgartown on the white side of the Vineyard, on land bequeathed to a LeVay ancestor by a white man he saved, the LeVays, like Cheryl, are African American. They're also wealthy and highly educated, and on this particular weekend, both sons have decided to bring their lady loves home to meet the folks.
First to arrive is the younger son, Kent (Eric Gerard), who has been casting around for a career and settled on novelist (his first book is about to be published), much to the disappointment of his father. With Kent is his fiancé, Taylor (Jennifer Latimore), an entomologist—the play's title comes from the practice of gluing insects to sticks to study them—who grew up less privileged because her famous-author father deserted her mother and her to start a new family.
Next to arrive is 37-year-old Flip (DiMonte Henning), a successful plastic surgeon and his father's favorite. He brings his girlfriend, Kimber (Kayla Raelle Holder), a self-described “WASP” who is rich and works with inner-city school kids. They plan to visit her parents next, apparently with an eye to upsetting them, and Flip is worried about what his mother will think about him having a white girlfriend.
As it happens, he won't find out. When the patriarch, celebrated neurosurgeon Joe LeVay (David Alan Anderson), shows up, his wife isn't with him. He says she'll be coming the next day, but she doesn't. He's rather secretive and evasive about her absence, and we eventually find out why.
Mom's absence, a bit annoying since we hear so much about her, is related to Cheryl's trauma, and playwright Diamond teases us about the specifics long before they're divulged, even though they are telegraphed a bit. The revelation also unleashes a torrent of recriminations that show the characters for who they really are.
Except for Kent, who is understandably dismayed by the dad who always looked down on him, the men come off badly. Flip is so self-involved that he can only think of the effects on him. He turns out to really be his father's son—and not in a good way. Joe, affable if authoritarian in the past, is so entitled that he can't see his way through to confront the truth and offer comfort.
Of the women, Taylor let loose with her rage and resentments much earlier, when a discussion with Kimber escalated into a bitter tirade arising from her daddy issues, hostility towards white people, and jealousy of those with more advantages, economic and otherwise. Kimber isn't cowed, however, and gives as good as she gets, or almost. Both actors are terrific, but Latimore's Taylor gets extra points for later letting us see the vulnerability and even neediness of a woman who can behave horribly even when she desperately wants to be loved.
The real tour de force is Bakari's Cheryl, however. Whether she's showing some attitude while dealing with Taylor's irritating attempts to be helpful, trying to be respectful of her mother on the phone, going about her maidly duties, or attempting to cope with an emotionally devastating situation, she's totally captivating. One of the most moving scenes is the rapprochement among the women in the kitchen before the weekend ends and everyone goes off, leaving us to wonder if the couples will stay together and what will happen to everyone.
As is usually the case at Writers, the technical aspects of “Stick Fly” are first rate. Linda Buchanan's scenic design stands out. Impeccably detailed, with even a sailboat gliding by the window, it also strikingly incorporates surreal elements.
I'd never seen “Stick Fly” before, but I can't imagine at better production than Writers'. While the play itself seemed a little overblown and left me with some questions (like how could Cheryl's mother throw her into this situation so unprepared?), the performances were well worth the trip.