Lydia Diamond’s play “Stick Fly” — set in Martha’s Vineyard at the home of a wealthy African American family — premiered at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company in 2006, proved popular with regional theaters, and was produced on Broadway in 2011. The fact that it hasn’t dated much says plenty about the resilience of its sharp perspective on race, class and machismo, as well as the truth of its characters. But perhaps its greatest aesthetic achievement is a careful balance of seriousness and wit, an attribute on full display in this vigorously entertaining production at Writers Theatre directed by Ron OJ Parson.
Linda Buchanan’s spacious set appropriately defines the affluence of the Cape Cod milieu. Although basically realistic, the set also has a touch of distortion. The three main playing spaces — living room, kitchen, and outdoor patio — are sized for the scope of the scenes that happen within them rather than for proportion. Sailboats occasionally float by in the background. The sheets over the furniture at the start demonstrate the occasional nature of the residence. Gradually, members of the LeVay family arrive, with visitors.
Joe LeVay (David Alan Anderson) is the patriarch, a neurosurgeon with high expectations for his two adult sons. His plastic surgeon son Flip (DiMonte Henning), has met them; his younger son Kent (Eric Gerard), who has recently completed a novel — has not. Both sons bring home a woman to meet the family for the first time. Kent arrives with his entomologist fiancée Taylor (Jennifer Latimore), the neglected daughter of a famous author whose books are easily found on the family’s shelves. Flip brings Kimber (Kayla Raelle Holder), a white woman — “Italian,” Flip insists as if that matters, and which isn’t true anyway — who teaches at an inner-city school.
Kimber’s presence brings issues of race to the forefront, but Diamond blends racial identity in with class and gender, making the characters fully dimensional. The other principal character is Cheryl (Ayanna Bria Bakari), a recent high-school graduate who fills in for her sick mother, who has served as the family’s housekeeper for decades. Early on, Diamond drops clear hints that Cheryl is actually Joe’s daughter, and that storyline builds throughout, with Cheryl becoming in some ways the central figure of a work that digs into the characters’ class-based expectations and the discomfort that emerges when these are challenged.
Diamond’s dialogue can be quite shrewd. Her characters, as in her Harvard-set play “Smart People” that played at Writers in 2018, can be intellectual and hyper-articulate, but always purely subjective. The logical arguments they make at any given time can sound reasoned but be self-interested justifications. For example, Latimore is particularly effective at showing us how Taylor’s criticisms of Kimber’s views on race may be based on resentment, fair or not, towards privilege, but also stem from the fact that Taylor once had a torrid but quick affair with Flip, another secret that we discover early but that gets revealed to others in carefully designed moments of exposure.
Despite this being the home of the three men, the women come to dominate. In particular, there’s deep poignancy in the way Bakari displays Cheryl’s intense wrestling with her own emotions as she re-evaluates her past and present place in this family. Both she and Taylor evolve while the men remain mostly unchanged, and the relationships among the three women shift and swerve throughout in ways both compelling and telling.
The men feel a bit more type-like, tipping clearly towards the sensitive and supportive (that’s Kent, whom Taylor calls “Spoon”) or the arrogantly self-involved (Flip, who manages to be both a womanizer and judgmental of his father’s specific choices in his affairs). Although Joe can and has been portrayed as a towering figure of stubbornness, Anderson brings in welcome subtle touches. His Joe just can’t figure out how to handle Cheryl, and then gives up trying. He makes the character vulnerable while never giving way to the sympathetic.
Parson’s pacing throughout is pretty much perfect, and the show provides moments of significant drama without ever becoming heavy, and plenty of humor without ever becoming superficial. Parson has coaxed complexity out of moments that might have become melodramatic — he understands that the stakes here are personally significant to the characters but also not Earth-shattering. They are, you might say, “first-world problems,” the difficulties of those who always have a coastal house, or at least an ace education, to fall back on.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.