Ever so gently, with smooth jazz, breezy humor and the trappings of luxury, "Stick Fly" lures you into the comfort of a Martha’s Vineyard living room for a meet the parents, comedy of manners, and thenâ€”POP!â€” out comes the stopper from Pandora’s jar. Into the room burst Dysfunction, Racial Tension, Sexism, Class Struggleâ€”all of the familiar pests that swarm through this season of "American Stories" from the Huntington Theatre Company.
"Stick Fly’s" characters are impressively educated intellectuals, and if its themes sound ripped from a sociology syllabus, don’t be alarmedâ€”the greatest strength of this superbly acted comic drama from the pen of Huntington fellow Lydia Diamond, is that it never lectures, never preaches, never declares. What it does do is explore and provoke.
Diamond shifts your allegiance from character to character giving each a range of painful slip-ups and eloquent defenses. If her characters vent about their various victimhoods’ in familiar terms, they are also wise enough to discover that beneath their complaints about society, more primal issues seethe. Some conflicts may be socially constructed, but others are just drives in action. The trick is figuring at which influence is at play when or how much of one steers another.
"Stick Fly’s" plot is driven by Kent "Spoon" LeVay (Jason Dirden) , who has set his sights on novel writing. It’s a new passion discovered in the wake of expensive degrees in both law and business, fully funded by his father, Joe LeVay (Wendell W. Wright), one of the most wealthy and prominent African American land owners on Martha’s Vineyard. Having completed his first book, Spoon returns to his father’s house for the weekend with his manuscript under one arm, and his brilliant and beautiful fiance, Taylor (Nikkole Salter), on the other. He’s come home to introduce his father to each. This won’t be easy for anyone. Spoon and Taylor are both terrified of the LeVay’s patriarch, who tends to view his youngest son as a mooching loafer.
To help ease tensions, Spoon has formed an alliance with his older brother, a laconic playboy called Flip (Billy Eugene Jones), who also has a delicate mission before him, namely, to introduce Joe to the current lady in his own lifeâ€”Kimber (Rosie Benton), a wealthy Cape Codder whose nearly translucent complexion is guaranteed to spark Joe’s ire. So Spoon and Flip are united in common cause, but as neither seems to have guessed, Taylor and Kimber are far from eager to play for the same team.
Meanwhile, two woman are conspicuously absent from the scene. Mrs. LeVay is detained elsewhere and so is the LeVay’s longtime housekeeper. For the latter, a substitute has been dispatched. Cheryl (Amber Iman), a fiercely intelligent young spitfire who is just blossoming into maturity (thanks in part to the high school scholarship money of Joe LeVay) is cast in the role of "black maid" for the weekend. Played with scene-stealing perfection by Iman, Cheryl becomes a touchstone of sorts for the LeVay’s and their guests, all of whom have struggled to uneasy terms with the privileges that have defined their respective backgrounds.
The social warfare that ensues is fluidly staged by Kenny Leon, the director who recently brought August Wilson’s Fences, back Huntington audiences. It unfolds in a set exquisitely designed by David Gallo, featuring an often simultaneously active living room, kitchen and porch as its elegant three-ring circus. This house hums with history and life. It’s surroundings ring with a chorus of laughter alternating with gasps of horror, clucks of disgust and cheers of triumphâ€”the sounds of an audience whose engagement is total. They’ll have a lot to think about on the ferry back to Boston.
Presented in cooperation with Arena Stage, "Stick Fly" plays through March 28 in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.