When you get right down to it, Appropriate is getting a far better production than it deserves. Running through December 8 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' schematic, melodramatic family drama comes with a cast that includes some of Chicago's finest actors. Directed by Gary Griffin, the troubles of a once-prosperous Southern clan plays out in a plot that feels carefully calculated rather than creatively inspired.
Set in a decaying family mansion in the Deep South, Appropriate brings together a trio of siblings charged with clearing out the clutter and straightening out the snarled finances of their late father. The family reunion is, predictably, a disaster. Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald), Bo (Keith Kupferer) and Franz (Stef Tovar) weren't that close to begin with. They're driven further apart by the discovery of an old family album containing snapshots of gruesome, unforgiveable and unknown part of their father's past. Toni, Bo and Franz are also forced to reexamine everything they thought they knew about their supposedly upstanding patriarch.
Jacobs-Jenkins piles conflict upon conflict into Appropriate. There's pedophilia, alcoholism, a secret pregnancy, the specter of financial ruin and even incest—all before the family reunion is even 24 hours old. The problem isn't so much one of issue-overload as it is that that none of the issues feel genuine; Appropriate feels like it was plotted on a graph, the author ticking off salacious dramatic points as he wrote.
What keeps the play from being a net loss are the excellent, compulsively watchable performances turned in by the cast. As Toni, Kirsten Fitzgerald is a mighty force as a woman of uncompromising beliefs (albeit beliefs rooted in deep denial). Toni is a woman one crosses at one's peril, and Fitzgerald is indomitable in bringing that towering, gimlet-eyed formidability to life.
As Bo, Keith Kupferer is equally vivid, an understated powerhouse with a long fuse that eventually burns down to detonation in a scathingly vitriolic monologue about guilt, race and white rage. As Bo's wife, Cheryl Graeff is a prickly, tightly-wound woman whose self-satisfied moral condescension alienates and infuriates just about everyone she encounters. Tovar brings a myopic immaturity to Franz, an alcoholic whose attempts at making amends to those he's hurt are really all about making himself feel good.
But even that rock-solid core of players can't fix what ails Appropriate. At heart, it's soap opera depiction of infighting family members is petty rather than profound.
Appropriate runs through Dec. 8 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln; $42–$50. victorygardens.org.