THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, one of the bright young things of American theater, relishes a bit of theatrical subversion. He took Dion Boucicault's creaky 19th century melodrama An Octoroon and up-ended it as only a young black writer really could. His comedy Gloria was dizzying in its twists and turns and now he presents a postmodern riff on that cornerstone of American theater – the Great Family Drama.
Think O'Neill or Miller or Wilson, where we witness a family at one of those crucial moments when their whole future is at stake. Jacobs-Jenkins uses this moment to explore themes of inheritance, loss, legacy, forgiveness and pain but he brings it bang up to date by widening the lens to examine exactly where these people have come from.
We are in a decaying ancestral Big House in rural Arkansas, the foliage overgrown and the cicadas deafening. The father, a pillar of the community, retired there from Washington, and has now passed, leaving a total mess. The banks are foreclosing and this unhappy family gather from afar to clear it out.
Director Ola Ince is perfectly attuned to the writer's love of theatrical flourish and she ramps up the tension like it was a horror film. Fly Davis' beautifully evocative design captures the dusty gloom in a set positively overflowing with 'stuff', the auditing of all this stuff mirroring the auditing of a life.
One of their finds, an album of photos relating to the slave burial ground beside the house, is the catalyst for all that follows as the shock of it casts the family's own ancestral lineage in a new light.
Eldest son Bo (Steven Mackintosh) and his Jewish wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff) are 'woke' Brooklyn yuppies whose response to the find is the polar opposite of the daughter Toni (Monica Dolan), who feels she is the only one left to defend their late father. The younger son, Frank (Edward Hogg), who was the black sheep of the family, troubled with every kind of addiction, has now found 'healing' in Portland in the arms of River (Tafline Steen) a New Age hippie half his age. Her arrival greatly irritates the others at first but her 'sweetness' masks a will of steel and this sets the scene for some lightning confrontations, particularly with Toni.
Toni is a termagant, with a serpent's tongue, a middle-aged single mother caked in encrustations of resentment about being lumbered with responsibility by two ungrateful brothers, all the while trying, and manifestly failing, to raise her own troubled teenage son. This is a woman who manspreads, who can find a weak spot in seconds and goes straight for the jugular, but whose savagery masks a much wounded soul. Dolan gets every shade of her.
Ince draws razor sharp performances from the whole ensemble here but Dolan is the stand out. She won a BAFTA playing Rosemary West, an Olivier this year in All About Eve and she had us all in stitches as the verbose Welsh PR woman in the BBC meta-comedy W1A, finally she gets a West End lead and she totally owns it.
Jacobs-Jenkins brilliance as a writer is how he takes a set of characters that at first glance might appear schematic and gives them all multiple dimensions. They all have their reasons, so he blocks every avenue the audience might take to easy judgement. What gives his work resonance, though, is how he can deliver a solid family drama but also deftly locate it within current debates about heritage, race and white privilege and entertain you all the while he is doing it.