“Nobody can make you feel inferior.” A character in Stick fly recites these words, harkening Eleanor Roosevelt who famously stated, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Stick fly is a double image of a microcosm, i.e. a fly in a jar under scrutiny, and as a metaphor for that study- like Taylor explains. That in order to study flies, they glue them to sticks and video tape them, then watch the footage. Flies move too fast in real life to be tracked and studied, something like families in disarray.
Stick Fly is a play by Lydia Diamond that debuted in 2011 and has had a mixed bag of reviews since (read the scathing review of the Off-Broadway show in the New Yorker). The basis is that an upper class African-American family is getting together at their house in Martha’s Vineyard where the sons, Flip and Kent, are bringing home girlfriends to meet the parents. Mom is not there for some reason, and the girls bring in a tension, along with the son’s divisive nature- one is a plastic surgeon and one is trying to be a successful writer. Add a maid who is mysteriously ill also, her daughter who is filing in and has grown up with all these young men, and you’ve got a stirring and complex play about families, secrets, and most importantly- that maybe classism is a more dividing force than racism.
This performance is stellar due to the actors. The actors in this are hands-down some of the best I have witnessed this year on any stage. I will try to do them justice, but probably can’t even begin to cut the surface of what they deserve. The family patriarch is Dr. LeVay, played by Louis B. Murray. Murray has graced the Arena Players stage for years and is amazing to watch in action. His character in this play is both vulnerable, and in charge. He has to be calm, kind, and in control, while harboring secrets from everyone around him. Murray has stage presence for days, he is high, pompous, and yet relatable and likable; a rather hard challenge as an actor. For all his faults, we love him, and forgive him.
The sons are Spoon and Flip. Jared Michael Swain plays Spoon, or Kent if you prefer. He is sweet and caring, adorable, in love but angry, he is kind yet jealous, he is collected yet loses his cool. He is the son we all root for- tell your daddy about that book! Defend your woman! Go on! Flip, or Harold, is portrayed by JC Payne. His “chip off the old block” routine is startlingly well done. He is exactly what we all balk at- an upper-cruster who looks down on the masses. His condescending demeanor and flippant attitude nail his performance as a stand out. He is the only character in the play that the audience yelled at during the performance.
Spoon brings home Taylor, an angry middle class young lady. Adrienne Knight drives home the points made that she has had to fight for everything in her life while the rest of the characters seem to be handed life on a silver plate. Although her father is a prominent author and researcher, she grew up estranged with her mother and not a part of any of his successes. But to the LeVay family, she has credit due to her father, until she explains she doesn’t really know him. Once she speaks her mind, studies bugs, and makes awkward exchanges, she becomes the outcast of the evening. Spoon defends her somewhat, but is still afraid to stand up to his father, and she pushes him to consider manning up. Knight switches quickly from confident woman, to intimidated young lady. From fiancé to disregarded daughter, her ability to slide in and out of these roles but somehow make them all a cohesive sense of self is astonishing to study.
The one that is supposed to be awkward is Barbara Madison Hauck as Kimber, Flip’s white girlfriend. The comedy ensues before her arrival when he keeps insisting to his family that she is Italian and therefore ethnic. She arrives and explains that she is a WASP (her words). The interesting dynamic here is that the sons assume she will be the one that stands out, but she has clout, and Taylor seems to be the one who cannot adjust.
And of course, the last is not the least, because DAMN CAN THIS GIRL ACT. The big blow of the evening is when Shelby Sullivan, the maid’s daughter Cheryl, talks to her mother on the phone, and her mother reveals that Dr. LeVay is actually her father. She physically cannot go on being the maid for these people. She has her moment of telling them all off, but it is slow to build and backed by an emotionally charged crescendo for Sullivan that is so poignant to watch- so difficult, you try to look away for her sake and cannot. She is that good.
Christen Cromwell does an extraordinary job of getting every ounce of emotion she can from this script and from each of her actors. The set design and construction are upper class on a budget, they look a bit like Martha’s Vineyard, but speak more to a middle class aesthetic. The rest of the design is functional and fluent, telling the story in vibrant colors to reflect the lurid emotions that run through the course of this play.
The only draw back is the length. This play clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and forty minutes. There is one 15-minute intermission but that is a long time to sit and watch a play. I was mesmerized by the actors and didn’t realize the time, except there were some yawns and shuffles in the seats next to me. Sigh.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You need to see this performance. If you don’t go for the phenomenal acting, then go for the social structure debate about class and race. Get a beverage of your choice after and discuss the effects of socio-economic strata and its overlap with racism in places like Martha’s Vineyard. This play has something for everyone, and is worth your attention, even if it means sitting for a long time. (I)
Running through November 4th at Fells Point Corner Theater. Running time two hours and forty minutes with one intermission.