Coal Mine Theatre’s Chief Engineers Diana Bentley & Ted Dykstra stand out among Canadian theatre heads for the consistency of their taste level in both script selection and personnel. Not every production at Coal Mine will work for every audience member but every production is thoughtfully programmed, expertly produced, and brought to life by a team of theatre-makers at the very top of their game. Bentley and Dykstra have their eyes open and their ears to the ground to be able to select the best of the best from the theatrical landscape around them rather than falling into the rut of merely hiring those they already know. The vast majority of the artists behind Appropriate are making their Coal Mine debuts despite many being well-known to audiences. The cast draws from the best of Soulpepper and Shaw, as well as Toronto’s independent, musical theatre, and comedy scenes. The script, meanwhile, is from one of the most consistent and exciting playwrights currently working anywhere in the world and its maybe the best work I’ve seen from him.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate draws on the familiar beats of the classic American domestic drama, the action playing out in long real-time scenes in a single setting- in this case, the living room of a semi-derilect plantation “somewhere in Arkansas”. Designed with haunting detail by Steve Lucas & Rebecca Morris, the set is at once a monument to evil, a museum of personal trauma, and a (beloved?) family home. The furniture creaks, the bookshelves hide horrors, Chekhov’s Confederate Flag sits tellingly visible but unacknowledged in the background for two acts before it’s brought forward to be even more tellingly ignored. The setting is also listed specifically as 2014, the year the play was written but also a notably different time for race relations in America than our current one. Confederate flags were slightly better hidden back then.
The incredible cast features Raquel Duffy, Gray Powell, and Andy Trithardt as a trio of siblings gathering at their recently deceased father’s home to prepare for an estate sale. Duffy’s powerful Toni is resentful and protective. Her little brother Frank (Trithardt) is the long-absent root of much of her heartbreak and it’s a thrill to see Trithardt finally back in a role that demands the complexity of his indie heyday, amiable moral compromise being one of his low-key greatest hits. Bo (Powell, brilliant as always) is the one who got out, the elder son who married a nice normal New Yorker and carries his damage closest to the vest. Morro & Jasp’s Amy Lee delivers a career-best performance as Bo’s wife with fantastically nuanced accent work and a carefully pitched balance of outsider sanity and proximity-bred complicity. Every character in Appropriate is crafted with exquisite empathy by both playwright and performer without a moment of relief from the play’s crucial critical eye. It’s very funny, and from start to finish completely excruciating.
Coal Mine has maybe the highest hit rate of any Toronto company but I feel confident in saying that this is likely the must-see of their season. It’s hard to imagine them topping it. Appropriate isn’t a good time but it’s great theatre- crucial, unmissable torture.
Appropriate is onstage until October 15th. General admission Coal Mine tickets are pricey but if you’re flexible you can grab a rush or arts worker ticket for $35.