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STICK FLY at Rep Theater Review

“Stick Fly,” the current Repertory Theater of St. Louis’ Mainstage production, centers on a wealthy African American family, the LeVays, as they gather for their annual summer vacation at the family’s stately Victorian home on Martha’s Vineyard, in this family drama comedy, that touches on class, race, privilege, sibling rivalry and father issues.

“Stick Fly” is playwright Lydia Diamond’s 2006 family comedy/drama, which opened on Broadway in late 2011. Chanel Bragg directs the production, which appears on COCA’s Catherine Berges Theater stage through March 6, and is available for streaming through the Rep through March 19. The play, which is set in 2005, takes place in several parts of a single set designed by Kyu Shin, with costumes by April M. Hickman.

Young brother Kent LeVay (Ricardy Fabre) arrives first, along with this new fiancee Taylor (Amber Reauchean Williams), shortly followed by his older brother Flip (DeShawn Harold Mitchell). The brothers expect to be greeted by the family’s long-time housekeeper/cook Miss Ellie but instead find her 18-year-old daughter Cheryl (Bobbi Johnson) filling in for her ailing mother. The brothers greet Cheryl almost like a sister, and Taylor, who is meeting the family for the first time, is confused. Finally she blurts out “you’re the maid,” earning her withering glances from the other three.

Taylor’s faux pas is typical of some of the humor in this funny, sharp family drama. It is a weekend of family dynamics, of trying to fit in, and of exploring issues of class, race and privilege over drinks, gourmet meals, and competitive board games, topped with a round of drunken Scrabble.

When the family patriarch, the brothers’ father Dr. Joe LeVay (the marvelous Ron Himes), eventually shows up, things really start cooking. A successful doctor, Joe is a charmer who dominates the room. But Dad has arrived without his wife, and when his sons ask when their mother will arrive, he deflects their questions.

Dr. LeVay is very taken with the fact that Taylor’s late father is a certain famous author and social philosopher. Taylor smiles but she is evasive about him. Taylor is lively and fun but she also has chip on her shoulder. Her father left when she was young and she grew up with her financially struggling mother in a more middle-class family, but attending private schools with the children of the wealthy.

When Taylor and Flip meet, they realize they have met before, and had had one romantic, passionate date, after which Flip did not call her. Neither one is eager to have Kent know about this bit of history.

Flip’s new girlfriend has not yet arrived but he reluctantly reveals she is not African American. “She’s Italian,” he says, leading to some jokes about that distinction. When she does arrive, we learn she is a WASP who grew up wealthy like the LeVay brothers.

Once everyone has gathered, the family dynamics and fireworks really get underway. Over this intense weekend of drinking and competitive board games, family drama, personality and culture clashes, toes are stepped on, feelings are hurt, situations become fraught, truths are evaded and secrets come out. Basically normal family drama, or the theater version of that.

In fact, in many ways “Stick Fly” is like any other family drama/comedy but that this is a wealthy African American family opens up new areas for humor and insights.

The mix of characters drives a lot of the humor and drama, as well as clashing personalities and some secrets. A lot of conflict is built into the assortment of characters playwright Lydia Diamond has assembled.

The acting is the center of this production and it is superb. Special standouts are the legendary Ron Himes, the major directing, acting and creative force behind the venerable Black Rep. His Joe LeVay, the patriarch, is charming and intellectual but a bit aggressive too. Not born to wealth, unlike his light-skinned wife and his privileged sons, Joe revels in his success now, but he quickly disappears when fraught emotions or uncomfortable questions arise.

Ricardy Fabre is sweet and sincere as younger brother Kent, whom his fiancee Taylor calls Spoon. He is very much in the shadow of his accomplished older brother Flip, a doctor like their father, but longs for his father’s approval and attention. Kent thinks he finally has found his calling as an author, and is on the verge of publishing a novel.

Amber Reauchean Williams’ Taylor is the emotionally showy character in this play, prone to speak without thinking, and with a chip on her shoulder. Taylor is in graduate school studying entomology, following her lifelong passion for insects (the play’s title is a reference to an old way of studying fly flight patterns), but she grew up middle-class and isn’t entirely comfortable in the LeVays’ affluent world. But Taylor is funny, lively and entertaining too, with a sweetness underneath all the fire.

Bobbi Johnson’s easy-going Cheryl seems the one who is always on top of things, except in fraught phone calls with her seriously-ill mother. While Taylor drops her share of humorous bombs, Bobbi Johnson’s easy-going Cheryl has things to say before the weekend is out.

The brothers engage in some sibling rivalry but generally get along. Their relationships with their emotionally distant dad are the issues.

“Stick Fly” is a fine family comedy/drama with a fresh viewpoint, that of an affluent African American family, that touches on some interesting subjects without losing the humor of a family vacation comedy. “Stick Fly” appears at COCA’s Catherine Berges Theater through March 6, and is available for streaming through the Rep through March 19.