The glib fast-talk in “Stick Fly” – and there’s a ton of it in the richly plotted play now at the Arden Theatre – may be about race. But the play itself is about class. Blend the two, in a story set inside an upper-class black family’s vacation home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and you have a pressure cooker on a high flame.
That’s just the way you want Lydia R. Diamond’s robust play to cook. Diamond deftly mixes race, mobility and family matters in her play that involves a wealthy black neurosurgeon and his highly educated family.
At the Arden, Walter Dallas’ staging inside the sprawling LeVay household (David P. Gordon’s airy seashore set) moves the play with the beat it demands, with a few peculiar exceptions. Some silences seem overly long and an indulgently lengthy initial scene, in which a young family friend (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) dusts the living room as she stands in for the maid, slows things on take-off. Thom Weaver’s lighting outside the living-room windows of this retreat is never anything but dark, even though much of the play takes place in early morning or daylight.
These are dents, though, in an otherwise smooth and sometimes rollicking production. Six years ago an early “Stick Fly” at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre was solid but a little tough to believe, and by the time the play reached Broadway in 2011, it was trimmed and strong. Although it displayed eruptions from this family of strong wills, the Broadway show was somewhat more reserved than Dallas’ hotter version at the Arden, which gives “Stick Fly” more zap.
Ever since the 17th century, Martha’s Vineyard – a short ferry ride off Cape Cod – has been home to a middle-class African American community. But the LeVay family retreat is in another part of Martha’s Vineyard, a white neighborhood with what some Mid-Atlantic Yankees would call typical New England pretentions.
The father in this prominent family is Joseph LeVay, a noted physician (a high-speed performance by Jerome Preston Bates, who finds an appropriate pace in the second half to synch with the rest of the superb cast). It’s also headed by a professional mom who, throughout the play, either is or is not on her way to the Vineyard.
In come the elder son (an actor named U.R.), about to raise hackles with his new, blonde and white girlfriend (Julianna Zinkel) and the younger son (Biko Eisen-Martin), currently dismaying his father by becoming a fiction writer, publisher’s contract in hand. His fiancée (Jessica Frances Dukes) is the estranged daughter of a recently deceased social scientist who wrote famously on the nature of racism. She’s a woman who makes a point by picking a fight, and goes through life as an outsider.
Add to this the family friend who stands in for her mother as the maid (the previously mentioned Abbott-Pratt), and you see the possibility of a provocative weekend. In the hands of the playwright, who’s invested these characters with revelations big and small, you’ll be surprised – as if a wave hit you just off the Vineyard’s sands.
“Stick Fly” runs through Dec. 22 at Arden Theatre Company, Second Street north of Market. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.