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Abundance of Heart in 'Stick Fly'

Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond

Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenic Design by David Gallo, Costume Design by Reggie Ray, Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes, Sound Design by Timothy J. Thompson, Casting by Alaine Alldaffer, Production Stage Manager Kathryn Most, Stage Manager Josiane M. Lemieux

CAST(in order of appearance): Taylor, Nikkole Salter; Kent (Spoon), Jason Dirden; Cheryl, Amber Iman; Flip, Billy Eugene Jones; Joe LeVay, Wendell W. Wright; Kimber, Rosie Benton

Performances through March 28, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts              Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

H.L. Mencken, a twentieth century journalist and critic of American life and culture, wrote "Those who can -- do, those who can't - teach." Well, Lydia Diamond is an exception to that old axiom as she both teaches in the School of Theatre at Boston University and is an outstanding working playwright. Exhibit A for the argument that this teacher "can do" is Stick Fly, presently ensconced at the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, under the joint auspices of the Huntington Theatre and the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. On the heels of a five-week run in the capital, the company has hit the deck running in Boston with highly-polished production values and an exemplary ensemble directed by IRNE nominee Kenny Leon.  

 "Stick Fly" deserves an "A" for structure, style, and substance. Diamond dares to share a slice of life of the black upper class LeVay family as they spend a weekend at their home on Martha's Vineyard and portray it with comfortable normalcy. One of the twists is that the setting is the tony community of Edgartown, as opposed to Oak Bluffs which is known as a black enclave on the island, placing the LeVays above the other African-American inhabitants as among the most elite. Patriarch Joe (Wendell W. Wright) is a successful neurosurgeon whose elder son Flip (Billy Eugene Jones), a plastic surgeon, follows his footsteps in more ways than one. Younger son Kent (Jason Dirden) proclaims himself a novelist after shrugging off several other career choices. The sons have each brought along a woman for the visit, and their inclusion has a telling effect on the family dynamics.

Kent is engaged to Taylor (Nikkole Salter), a post-doctoral student in entomology and estranged daughter of a renowned black intellectual. Kimber (Rosie Benton), a white socialite who teaches inner-city kids, is involved in a more casual dating relationship with Flip. Rounding out the reunion is Cheryl (Amber Iman), the teenage daughter of the LeVay's African-American maid, filling in for her ailing mother this weekend, who is enrolled at an exclusive Manhattan private school. The absence of the maid Ms. Ellie and mother Michelle LeVay does not preclude them from having a strong presence, and frequent mentions of them are woven into the dialogue, emphasizing the importance of the maternal figure in the black family. Early in the play, Diamond telegraphs that the reasons for their nonattendance will figure prominently in the plot and an air of mystery hovers until the secrets are revealed in dramatic fashion. This play has it all - intelligent writing, genuine humor that flows from the personalities and situations at hand, and fully developed characters we care about who are brought to life, warts and all, by actors who get inside their skin and explore their every facet. Perhaps owing to the fact that they come from the pen of a strong, gifted woman, the female characters are all strong and whip-smart. The men are well-educated and talented in their fields, too, but lack the degree of emotional intelligence of Diamond's women. The play's title refers to the process used by entomologists like Taylor to study the flight patterns of insects, gluing them to sticks because their motions are too fast for cameras to follow. The LeVay men and their women are more or less stuck in this house for this brief moment in time and all six take a turn being examined in the spotlight or under the microscope, as it were. Some come off looking better than others, but almost all are changed by the experience.  

Director Leon has crafted an exceptional production and elicits wonderful performances across the board, but I wish to draw attention to two standouts. Taylor is arguably Diamond's alter ego and the focal point because of her struggle to fit in with this family as she has struggled throughout her life with the challenge of not belonging anywhere, most affectingly within her father's second family. Salter captures all of Taylor's quirkiness, insecurity, anger, discomfort, coolness, and warmth while matching wits with the others. Amber Iman's natural, nuanced portrayal of Cheryl is all the more amazing because of her relatively limited professional experience, but she nails the friendly, sassy teenager of the first act, as well as the stunned, but wiser young woman of act two. The entire cast acts so loose and comfortable with each other that they begin to appear like an actual family.

Dirden and Jones convey a feeling of brotherly love, as well as a healthy dose of sibling rivalry. The sons' relationships with the father are quite dissimilar and Wright lets us know in no uncertain terms which is the fair-haired child and which earns his scorn. However, Joe is a complex man who rules the roost and harbors secrets which have the potential to destroy the delicate balance of function and dysfunction within his family. While Joe's stoicism allows him to maintain some equilibrium, it serves as a catalyst for change for Flip and Kent, and demonstrates the difficult social and cultural row the senior LeVay must hoe. Benton infuses Kimber with a self-assuredness that stands her in good stead with this challenging lot and makes her supremely credible when she gives as good as she gets. I had my doubts about the motivation for Flip and Kimber to be together, but they made a believer out of me by the time they departed.

Diamond has also made a believer out of me with Stick Fly. Leon and others have recently placed her among the ranks of the late playwright August Wilson, but it is not the potential stardom or celebrity that matters to theatergoers. What matters most is the work and what the audience members experience sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark. While the LeVay family represents the black upper class, there is something to connect with in this play, regardless of color, age, or gender. The tension between father and son, the sibling rivalry, the disenfranchised child, and the palpable need to find one's place, are among the universal themes that Diamond dissects with surgical skill. Her emotional investment, articulate writing, and artistic vision combine to make Stick Fly highly worthy of your attention, and Leon and the Huntington production give it its due.

 

Photo credits: Scott Suchman (Billy Eugene Jones, Wendell W. Wright, Amber Iman, Rosie Benton, Nikkole Salter, Jason Dirden)

 

 

 

 


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From This Author Nancy Grossman