The immaculate Martha’s Vineyard home of the African American LeVay family is the set for Lydia R. Diamond’s STICK FLY at Arden Theatre Company. Plush sofas and pristine white cabinetry are the trappings around which the evening’s drama unfolds. The audience has a window into the kitchen, living room and porch where at times multiples scenes take place at complementary intervals; sometimes echoing their counterparts in the next room. The characters in the play are a complex set, all with different but overlapping backgrounds—some more than they realize.
Under one roof for the weekend are the LeVay sons, Flip (U.R.) and Kent (Biko Eisen-Martin) with their respective ladies Kimber (Julianna Zinkel) and Taylor (Jessica Frances Dukes), their neurosurgeon father Joseph (Jerome Preston Bates), and their live-in maid’s daughter, Cheryl (Joniece Abbott-Pratt). While normally her mother, Ellie, would be along as well, due to sickness and various doctor’s appointments Cheryl has the charge of the house. Singing, dusting, and dancing, she is the first one on the stage, and completely at ease in her surroundings.
In contrast, Taylor is taken aback by the scale of her fiancé’s life and spends much time remarking on the grandeur and pressing herself into the tantalizingly soft fabric of oversized armchairs. Though her late father was one of the most respected cultural anthropologists of his time, she was raised by her mother away from riches in a decidedly lower middle class environment. Her discomfort is a central theme of STICK FLY. Awkward situations abound in the LeVay household and it’s a joy to squirm, laugh, and grimace at Taylor’s inability to navigate them. As Taylor fails, actor Dukes succeeds, channeling the emotions of the out-of-place within all of us. Duke charms us with the strange sweetness of entomologist Taylor, who wakes up at the crack of dawn to hunt for fly specimens.
Flip is also introducing his girlfriend Kimber to the family this weekend, and while she is unknown to them, it’s been said she’s Italian. “That means she’s white, right?” Yes, and she minored in African American studies and teaches inner city school kids, to the great cultural frustration of Taylor and Cheryl, who both struggle with first judgments and preconceived notions. The resulting conflicts are thought-provoking and not contrived, with fresh and interesting comments about underlying racial tensions. Zinkel plays a strong-willed, unapologetic, and easily unlikable Kimber with such sincerity and understanding that her character quickly soars past any resemblance to a token white girl.
STICK FLY gets its name from a moment in the play where Taylor describes to her future father-in-law the flight of house fly. So fast and scattered is their movement they can’t be studied in motion. Instead they are glued to sticks, and with special cameras and techniques studied from different angles that when put together, create a composite allowing for a much more complete understanding of their patterns. So it is with the action of STICK FLY. The issues of race, class, and identity are not swatted at by one point of view, but honed in on from multiple approaches; whether it is comedy, absurdity, or tragedy.
With so many variables and back stories, the plot risks becoming muddled and losing its power. But playwright Lydia Diamond has kept balance and clarity across each scene, with natural and fluid dialogue. In fact, almost every single line is intentioned and either harks back to a previous thought in the play, or foreshadows an event to come. Only the climatic confrontation between the LeVay brothers loses this focus, when discovery after discovery occurred without proper contextual build throughout the play, reminiscent of a B-movie plot reveal.
Mostly though, actors and playwright harmonize beautifully. At times the script provides a basis immutably moving; other lines would not have landed with the success they did if not for animation imbued by this specific cast. Each character displays deeply unlikable qualities, but keep humanity and nuance throughout, so the audience appreciates them as round individuals. STICK FLY presents an inventive look at race and class, but also a ruthlessly funny study of universally resonant interpersonal dynamics—another make-you-think evening of theater delivered beautifully by the Arden. October 24-December 22, 2013, ardentheatre.org.