Portraying a relatable human story through the vehicle of a minority family, without overly racializing the content, is a delicate and difficult task. Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly”—a Huntington Theatre Company production which plays through March 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Calderwood Pavilion—rises gracefully to the challenge. The show provides a snapshot of the wealthy, African-American LeVay family as it starts to head over the edge of an unseen precipice, while wittily examining class, race, gender roles, and familial relations in America. “Stick Fly” is an exercise in sharp gasps, nervous laughter, and shocked silences, culminating in a disappointingly anti-climactic ending.
The play is set in the LeVays’ Martha’s Vineyard household, which is masterfully designed by Tony Award-winning scenic director David Gallo. The cast moves fluidly through the house, whose aesthetic takes the idea of watching a “slice of life” quite literally: the set is a cross-section of the LeVay residence, providing views of the porch, kitchen, living room, and stairs, all meticulously decorated with paintings, books, and ornate details that convey the luxury of the LeVays’ lifestyle.
The two grown LeVay sons, Kent (Jason Dirden) and Flip (Billy Eugene Jones), return home for a holiday, each bringing with them a romantic interest. Kent’s girlfriend is Taylor (Nikkole Salter), an angry, intelligent, lower-middle-class black entomologist who wants nothing more than to fit in with the LeVays. Flip, on the other hand, brings home the white, wealthy Kimber (Rosie Benton), who works with lower-class students in a poor neighborhood. The two women inevitably clash, as do the two brothers. Maid Cheryl (Amber Iman) and patriarch Joe LeVay (Wendell W. Wright) observe the couples’ dynamics interestedly as they mask secrets of their own.
The six-person cast works wonders with Diamond’s script. Though a bit melodramatic at times—it is relatively unbelievable that Flip had a romantic dalliance with his brother’s future wife—the writing is incredibly sharp and funny, complementing the actors’ flawless comedic timing. In a series of humorous exchanges at the beginning of the show, the characters discuss the arrival of the “melanin-challenged” Kimber at the LeVay house. When Taylor refers to Kimber as white, Flip fires back, “She’s Italian!”—a running joke that ends when Kent and Joe greet Kimber in excited Italian, only to find out that she does not actually have a drop of Italian blood in her.
Moments like this, in which humor is used to highlight darker truths, abound in the play. Though the constant references to Kimber as Italian are funny, they also bring to light some disturbing realities about the race dynamic in America, as Flip believes an “ethnic” girlfriend would be more welcome in his family than a white one. One brief exchange between Flip and Joe captures this perfectly: when Joe claims that Flip sounds embarrassed about his white girlfriend, Flip simply replies, ”No, I’m just aware.”
Despite the abundance of talent in the play, however, not all of the acting resonates. Salter’s performance as Taylor is particularly grating. She has the difficult task of playing an awkward character with many psychological and personal issues whose behavior annoys nearly everyone in the play, and she overacts the part. Her lines are occasionally too forceful, her emotional reactions too choppy, and her gestures barely contained within the bounds of the set. In the first scene in which she drunkenly verbally spars with Benton, Salter is uncomfortable to watch, gesturing dramatically, speaking too angrily, and overacting her drunkenness.
Additionally, Salter has only minimal chemistry with the other actors. The scenes in which she and Dirden act as a supposedly “in-love” couple are awkward, and their physical contact is forced and unnatural. The only actors with whom she sparks are Wright and Jones; still, her overbearing presence feels out of place in this particular play.
Iman and Wright are the runaway stars of the play. Iman plays the part of intelligent young maid Cheryl with energy and vivaciousness tinged with sadness, hitting exactly the right note of each. Her facial expressions convey so much emotion that they almost serve as spoken lines, and she comes into her own at the end of the play when all is revealed.
As the head of the LeVay household, Wright brings a great deal of charm and multiple dimensions to his character, avoiding the stereotypes it would have been easy for him to fall into as a rich, black husband. Dirden and Benton also deliver excellent performances as Kent and Kimber, respectively, though not as outstanding as those of Iman and Wright.
“Stick Fly” is an emotionally charged production with a beautiful set, a talented cast, and a script that forces deep consideration of difficult issues. Diamond is excellent at building up emotional tension, diffusing it with humor, and then continuing to build it again to nearly unbearable levels. Unfortunately, the ending of the play leaves a bit to be desired, as this final tension fails to culminate in a satisfying conclusion; instead, the show simply fizzles out. The play’s greatest strength, however, is that it makes the story of the LeVays universal, inviting audience members of all backgrounds to share in the triumphs and heartbreak of the family.