31 March 2014


This season at the Signature Theatre Company has been a different experience for me.  For a combination of reasons, first the constitution of the schedule as an All-Premiere Season made up of plays by various writers rather than a series from one playwright and, second, because my companion, Diana, and I booked Horton Foote’s The Old Friends before we settled on our subscription, not only were all the plays new ones in New York, but many of the writers are artists whom I’ve never encountered before or with whom I only had minimal experience.  Will Eno (The Open House, reported on ROT on 16 March) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are entirely new to me, despite their track records and reputations.  So when Diana and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the evening performance of Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate on Friday, 21 March, I had no idea what I was about to see.  As I’ve explained in the past, I avoid reading reviews until after I’ve had my own say—except for the New York Times notice because it’s delivered to my apartment.  In this case, however, the reviewer was Ben Brantley and, as I’ve also said before on this blog, I more often find myself on the opposite side of the opinion spectrum from Brantley than not, so I basically only noted that he gave Appropriate a rave notice and left it at that until I saw the production for myself.  So, here we go.

STC’s New York première of Appropriate, directed in the Alice Griffin Jewelbox Theatre, the miniature proscenium house at the Signature Center, by Liesl Tommy, started performances on 25 February and opened on 16 March; it was originally scheduled to run until 6 April but has been extended through 13 April.  The play’s world première was at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville from 5 March  to 7 April 2013 and then it had a dual opening in Washington, D.C., at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from 4 November to 1 December 2013 (also staged by Tommy), and in Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater, 15 November through 14 December 2013 (directed by Gary Griffin, who helmed the ATL début as well).  The play was developed with Tommy and shown in staged readings at STC as part of Jacobs-Jenkins’s Residency Five stint, and he’s said he did substantial revisions in the spring of 2013 between the ATL début and the D.C.-Chicago presentations. 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins lives in Brooklyn now, a playwright, dramaturg, and performer.  His first full-length play, Neighbors, was produced by the Public Theater’s Lab program (première, 2010), L.A.’s Matrix Theatre, and Boston’s Company One; the play received its UK première at the HighTide Festival in Suffolk last May.  His other plays include The ChangeFace #1-3ThirstZooHeart!!!, and Content.  As a performer, he’s also half of the duo enemyResearch, with whom he’s created and performed in Garbage, Schechnershirts, and The Amateurs.  Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays have been seen at Prelude, CUNY’s festival of new theater and performance, in 2008 and ’09; the Public Theater; New York Theatre Workshop; Soho Rep; P.S. 122; Ars Nova; Dixon Place; Providence Black Repertory; Chicago’s Links Hall; the McCarter Theatre in Princeton; the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles; Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis; Boston’s Company One; Theater Bielefeld in Bielefeld, Germany; and the National Theatre in London.  He’s a former NYTW Playwriting fellow, an alumnus of the Hemispheric Institute's EMERGENYC Program, as well as a member of the Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab, the 2009 Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and the Ars Nova Playgroup.  The young writer’s a 2009 Princess Grace Award winner for Playwriting and the 2009-10 Dorothy Streslin Playwriting Fellow at Soho Rep.  He also spent a year in Berlin, Germany, on a 2009 Fulbright Fellowship and he’s the winner of the 2013 Sundance Theatre Institute Tennessee Williams Award.  He’s working on a commission from Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 and Yale Rep just announced that his newest play, War, will début there in November.  Appropriate was a finalist for this year’s Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. 

Jacobs-Jenkins, who is black, is a man who apparently doesn’t like to be specific about his age—back in 2010, he told New York Times reporter Patrick Healy “he was in his mid-20s”—but should be about 29 now by my calculation.  Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jacobs-Jenkins graduated from St. John’s College High School (“half military, half Catholic”), one of the oldest schools in the city, as valedictorian of the class of 2002.  His mother, a lawyer and one of the first African-American women to hold a degree from Harvard Law School, and his father, a dentist who worked in the Maryland state prisons, weren’t patrons of the theater, but they took him to see Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Studio Theatre when he was 14 and the experience made a lasting impression on him.  Jacobs-Jenkins proceeded to Princeton University for a 2006 undergraduate degree in anthropology and followed that with an internship at the New Yorker, then New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a masters in Performance Studies, including courses in the Department of Dramatic Writing. 

Jacobs-Jenkins has “this vivid memory” of the Studio’s Godot.  “I had no idea what I was looking at,” the writer says now, “but it was doing something to me.”  Besides being “this moderately opaque piece of existentialist drama,” the teenaged playwright-to-be found that “two black actors had been cast in the lead roles,” a decision by director (and Studio Theatre founder and then-artistic director) Joy Zinoman that stirred a lot of controversy in the Washington press and among the Studio’s audiences.  It also brought a cease-and-desist order from Samuel Beckett’s estate, which also objected to “the kinds of improvisations that would have driven Beckett up the wall.”  The casting “had managed to ‘racialize’ Beckett in this bizarre way” and Jacobs-Jenkins found himself “completely riveted.”  The young teen felt that “the ‘race-blind’ concept was rubbing up against all these questions of being and language and modernity and abstraction in a strange way that I was probably responding to on some subconscious level.” 

The incipient dramatist spotted the name of a former grade-school classmate in the Godot program and says, “I thought, if he can do it.”  When he got to high school, young Jacobs-Jenkins began auditioning for plays and in his senior year, he actually performed the role of Vladimir in Godot, “which,” he recalled, “was a disaster.”  He continued to act at Princeton, but he says he got tired of being “conceptually cast,” playing roles where his race was a factor in the decision.  He was taking courses in fiction writing, focusing on short stories, but when he was told he couldn’t take any more creative writing classes, he turned to playwriting.  The responses he got when he read his scenes, unlike any he got from his prose—his professor told him, “I think you’re a playwright and I think you should deal with that”—led him to NYU and the Department of Dramatic Writing. 

In all of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays, the writer uses “blackness as a ‘material.’”  Neighbors had black characters in blackface “perform the once-familiar, now-shocking gestures of minstrelsy.”  An Octoroon (premières in April at SoHo Rep) is an adaption of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon.  In Appropriate, there are no black characters, “[b]ut the subject is unmistakably the elephant in the room.”  The estranged members of the white Lafayette family return to Arkansas and the derelict plantation that was their former home to dispose of the possessions of Ray, their recently deceased father and grandfather, in an estate sale and sell the property to cover his debts.  First to arrive is the youngest son, Franz (formerly Frank) and his young girlfriend, River—who’s sensitive to spirits.  Joining them are sister Toni, the oldest sibling, and her teenaged son, Rhys, followed by Bo, the elder brother, his wife, Rachael, and their two children, 8-year-old Ainsley and precocious 13-year-old daughter, Cassidy.  (I continue my accidental string of performances with boy actors.  This makes four.  Though Rhys, about 18, is played by 23-year-old Mike Faist, Ainsley is portrayed by Alex Dreier, 10, who has no lines but performs a chilling and emblematic visual moment in the play.  Appropriate is my only show so far this season with a female juvenile, though.)  

Among the hoarded mementos and junk, the family finds an album of photos of dead black people, all apparently lynched.  The discovery sends the family into paroxysms of fractious confrontations, forgotten histories, and guilt.  Jacobs-Jenkins sees Appropriate as the last in a “sequence” that includes Neighbors and An Octoroon.  Like those plays, he says, Appropriate is “concerned with genre and the act of seeing—the moral question inherent in it—and what exactly is American about American theatre.”  He names Horton Foote, Sam Shepard, and Arthur Miller as writers he admires, and plays such as Dividing the Estate, Buried Child, Cherry Orchard, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as works that helped inspire Appropriate. 

According to his interview in the STC subscriber magazine, Jacobs-Jenkins affirms that when he started writing Appropriate, “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put all those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens”; he acknowledges that his characters are all related to ones from the family plays he named.  (I had begun to wonder, before I saw the play, if the Jacobs-Jenkins’s title was meant to be the adjective a-PRO-pree-at, “suitable to the social situation,” or the verb a-pro-pree-ATE, “to take possession of.”  I’ve concluded that the writer intends it to be ambiguous; Jacobs-Jenkins has spoken of “appropriation” and the theater posted definitions of both senses of the word outside the Griffin.  The introduction to the STC interview with the playwright asserts, “Jacobs-Jenkins quietly imbues the topics of history, belonging, ownership, and appropriation with even greater power.”  The Lafayette siblings act ”inappropriately” throughout the play, and the photos they discover and the family history are evidence of the white establishment “appropriating” African-American culture, history, and suffering.) 

In the New York Times, reviewer Ben Brantley praised the way the dramatist “honors the time-tested recipes of those who have gone before him,” exclaiming, “[W]hat a difference a chef makes.”  Unhappily, I think Brantley’s overstated the case.  Jacobs-Jenkins’s idea may sound interesting, using recognizable memes from great writers of the past both as an homage and as a dramatic lift to help the audience slip more easily into the playwright’s world, but what ends up happening is start-to-finish déjà vu, a feeling that we’ve seen this all before.  Diana compared it to series TV, familiar situations and pedestrian writing that doesn’t elevate the drama above the predictable and expected.  (Elisabeth Vincentelli described Appropriate in the New York Post as “the kind of show where a character making an ominous discovery exclaims ‘Oh my God,’ followed by a dramatic blackout.”)  I wouldn’t state it as harshly as Diana, though.  I give Jacobs-Jenkins a great deal of credit for trying the idea and applying it to an ambitious point.  Except as parody, it probably wouldn’t ever work to borrow (dare I say ‘appropriate’?) so extensively from well-known (and often beloved) tropes in the hopes that you can détourne them for your own purposes, and perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins should have seen that earlier in the process, but I won’t dismiss his attempt to go this route. 

The writer’s ambitious idea is to look at racism in America not through the eyes and lives of those who experienced it themselves, or inherited its repercussions generations after slavery and Jim Crow, but through the lives of the supposedly privileged white Christians who have reaped the whirlwind from the white-supremacy wind their ancestors sowed.  The Lafayette family was dysfunctional long before they discovered Ray’s stash of lynching photos, but the recriminations and bitterness is redoubled when theories start to be put forth for where the pictures came from and whether Ray was actually involved somehow in the horrors they depict—and then who can profit from them now and how.  The tender threads that held the clan together at all—none of the siblings live in the same town and even their own families are in precarious shapes—are virtually ripped out and the fabric of kinship lies in shreds like the rest of the old man’s detritus.  The photos and the plantation connect the Lafayettes to their family history.  Until they find the pictures and questions start to be asked—at first, and most pointedly, by the family outsiders, River, the fiancée, and Rachael, the wife—Toni, Bo, and Franz never even questioned the implications of the old house, whose grounds include an unmarked slave burial ground as well as a family plot, or their family’s history in it.  What Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be saying is that, even if none of them, as Bo rants in frustration, had actually discriminated against anyone, let alone lynched anyone, their unreflective acceptance of a past in which their society and their forebears—all those generations of Lafayettes buried in the plot just outside the window—had perpetrated, echoes down the generations.

Jacobs-Jenkins has contrived that among this family, Toni is divorced and angry, and her son, who now wants to go live with his father, has just come off a period in juvenile detention for selling drugs at his Atlanta school.  Toni, who’d been principal of the school, lost her job over the affair.  Franz had once been convicted of sex with a minor—a girl nearly the same age as his niece Cassidy—and has had problems with drugs and alcohol.  Off the grid for 10 years, he moved from town to town so often that, now in Portland, Oregon, no one could locate him to tell him about his father’s death and the funeral, which he missed.  Franz’s current girlfriend is much younger than he and seems flaky to his sister and brother (though she may be the most grounded one in the group).  Bo’s problems may be the most complex: he doesn’t seem able to commit to anything, even defending his wife against an attack by his sister—he just doesn’t want to get in the middle of anything.  But he feels as if he’s the one bearing the financial responsibility for the plantation and his late father’s care while his job back in New York is in danger because the magazine where he works is downsizing.  Rachael, Bo’s wife, is not only an outsider (she’s from Brooklyn), but she’s a Jew (and, yes, the “K” word gets tossed about) and there are suggestions that Bo married her in part because of her outsiderness.  (I believe that Toni’s response to Rachael’s Jewishness and Bo’s defensiveness about all the evils perpetrated on all minority groups in this country’s history—disease-infested blankets given to Indians even gets a mention—and even Franz’s status as a sex-offender are all meant to be surrogates for the racism Jacobs-Jenkins is addressing but which his characters avoid confronting.  The message: A bigot is a bigot is a bigot.  They don’t discriminate among flavors of prejudice.  Bigotry is bigotry.)  The discovery of the photo album didn’t make this family a mess, but the gruesome pictures serve as a catalyst for the explosion that may have been inevitable as soon as Toni, Bo, and Franz came together in their old home. 

Though Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t state this theme in the text of Appropriate, it’s what I feel he’s trying to get at.  His vehicle may be flawed and the baggage this characters bring to the situation, not to mention the appropriations the playwright’s taken from Williams, Miller, and the others, may be getting in the way of clearly communicating his point, but I credit Jacobs-Jenkins with an intriguing and worthwhile idea to examine.  Appropriate is only his third full-length play, the second to get a full staging (An Octoroon was presented in a flawed early form at P.S. 122 in 2010, but the revised version gets its première next month) and the writer isn’t yet 30, so I’ll take this production as an encouraging and interesting stage in his maturation and watch where he goes next.  At Princeton, Jacobs-Jenkins recalls, his playwriting teacher, the screenwriter and playwright Neal Bell, told him, “I think you should keep writing plays.  You’re doing something really complicated.”  Now, maybe that’s a little heady to tell a college writer, but I’d accept the assessment now—even if the dramatist’s reach may still be exceeding his grasp.  There was too much that was thought-provoking and promising in Appropriate for me to dismiss Branden Jacobs-Jenkins out of hand. 

The script aside, Liesl Tommy’s production of Appropriate was well conceived and executed.  I don’t know Tommy’s work, but she’s been working both here and in regional rep companies for some time.  A native of Cape Town, South Africa, Tommy has also taught in schools such as NYU’s Tisch, Juilliard, and Brown University.  She worked with Jacobs-Jenkins on the development of Appropriate during his STC residency and staged the Woolly Mammoth production that followed the ATL première.  The playwright didn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination, spelling out almost every emotion and impulse, but Tommy got the actors all to pull it off as if it were the most natural of behaviors.  In her hands, the Lafayettes may be tightly wound but they manage to be believable, not to say always rational, individuals, though it wouldn’t be hard to turn them into clichés.  The production runs two hours and twenty minutes (including one intermission), but it didn’t seem long despite the sometimes predictable nature of Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramaturgy.  Tommy keeps the spinning, overloaded play focused and fluid.  She couldn’t change the melodrama into anything more substantial, and she couldn’t give the play a final resolution that Jacobs-Jenkins didn’t write, but she did keep everything from whirling off into space, which it came close to doing more than once.  (In act two, there’s a total melee, choreographed by fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, in which nearly everyone, including the women and teenaged Rhys—who makes a flying leap at his uncle Bo that attests to his chops as an acrobatic dancer late of Newsies—takes a very active part!  It’s the family-play equivalent of a barroom brawl.)

The costumes of Clint Ramos nicely capture each character’s nature without blaring it out (the characters do that rather enough themselves), but the indisputable star of Appropriate’s physical production is Ramos’s scenic design, especially as lit by Lap Chi Chu.  The Griffin’s small playing area is completely filled with the living room interior of the Lafayette plantation, with a loftily high ceiling and a long staircase to the second-floor landing at the back.  The living room in turn is completely filled with the collected remnants of the dead man’s life of hoarding—clothes, old toys (Bo pulls out a wooden sled that looks like it might have come from the set of Citizen Kane), discarded furniture, books, and assorted junk covering every bit of floor, every surface, and every nook.  (Show Business’s Amy Stringer remarked on “the exquisite detail.”  Think Collyer Brothers.)  The house itself is decomposing like the family ancestors in the graveyard outside.  It’s not haunted, Franz assures River after they climb in through a window—but it looks as if it ought to be.  And of course, it is—although the spirits might be more attached to the people than the place.  Maybe both.  The house is so decrepit that at the end of the play, after everyone has fled, leaving it to the ravages of time, the set literally falls apart piece by piece.  The implication is too obvious, like much of Jacobs-Jenkins’s script, but the stage effect is stunning as ceilings crumble, paintings fall off the walls, and a chandelier drops.  (Phantom of the Opera has only a falling chandelier; Appropriate has an entire house!)

Chu’s lighting, which ranges from shadowy and haunting to glaring and hot like a giant interrogation spot, only enhanced Ramos’s picture.  The wall sconces glowed barely orange, providing an eerie glimmer until the rest of the lights are brought up; outside the windows, instead of moonlight or a wash of dappled sun though old trees, are a bank of spotlights shining in through the floor-to-ceiling windows as if the inhabitants of the plantation were under scrutiny by some unseen observer. 

Once again the Signature has produced a true ensemble performance, engineered by Tommy.  The characters are hardly folks I’d like to spend much time around, although River, the latter-day hippie, isn’t as hard to take as the rest if you can get around her new-ageyness, but the cast portrays them impeccably.  (Brantley said the characters are “all both unlovable and impossible not to identify with,” though I don’t entirely buy the second assertion.)  Johanna Day’s Toni is a bitch on wheels from her first entrance pretty much until she leaves the stage, but she mixes her acerbic wit with a touchy defensiveness that makes her human (if not quite sympathetic).  Her one moment of near-empathy—although she has to imagine her bothers dead to get to it—is carried off with more conviction than a less resourceful actor probably could muster; it almost doesn’t fit, but Day finds the connection in the memories she’d like to have.  Bo’s noncommittal aloofness and Franz’s man-child oddness are nicely portrayed by Michael Laurence and Patch Darragh; as hard as the characters are to take—I really just wanted someone to smack them both upside their heads and knock some common sense into them—the two actors catch the brothers convincingly. 

As the women in the two brothers’ lives, Sonya Harum’s River and Maddie Corman’s Rachael both clearly demonstrate their outsider status, Harum by simply not meshing with the family dynamic so . . . well, dynamically, and Corman by exhibiting a palpable animosity for Toni (and later for Ray) that seems both deserved and a little contrived.  (It’s actually Rachael herself who first invokes the “K” word, though Toni picks it up readily.)  The children are hints of what will become of the Lafayette clan down the generational road, and it’s still cloudy.  Rhys has already made bad choices but Faist makes him seem unfinished and a little diffident.  Away from Toni—and we have no idea what kind of man Derek, his father, is—he may have a chance to sever the tether to the Lafayette ghosts.  Precocious young Cassidy keeps reminding us that she’s “almost an adult,” and Izzy Hanson-Johnston makes her smart enough that we can just believe she, too, might be salvageable—once Rachael is back in New York safely away from the other Lafayettes.  Her little brother, Ainsley, is less of a full-blooded figure, and Dreier is called on to do little more that be a ball of energy tearing around the old homestead—which he does with terrific verve. 

It may well be that Tommy’s staging has papered over many of the faults of Jacobs-Jenkins’s script, but in my experience, most of the time that that happens, there’s something in the play on which to anchor the production.  That’s why I’ll take the STC presentation of Appropriate as an indication that this writer has a lot to offer and soon may be making a mark on U.S. stages.  (In Entertainment Weekly, Stephan Lee posited that this may be “a star-making production for” the playwright.  I’m not prepared to go that far.)  Jacobs-Jenkins already has an ear for speech, even if his dialogue can border on cliché, and his characters, if derivative, are vivid and lively.  He has a way of making them play off of one another that creates a world on the stage, but he hasn’t learned yet that less can be more, explaining everything, but saying little in the end—which, by the way, contains no resolution either to the questions raised by the photos or to the rifts in the family.  We do know that Rhys is going to live with his father, starting a new chapter perhaps, but the only other indication of a potential future is that both Franz and River have taken new names: Franz used to be Frank (apparently for François) and River was born Trisha.  New identities may suggest a new start, and Franz insists he’s not the same person who led his earlier, troubled life.  Nonetheless, as Timesman Brantley put it, when Appropriate ends, the Lafayette children “are, if anything, more confused than when it began. The decay of the house set may be Jacobs-Jenkins showing us what he sees in the Lafayette future, but it’s not in the play.

The press response seemed to be split; I came down in a sort of center position, finding flaws in the vehicle but promise in the ideas and Jacobs-Jenkins’s talent and ambition.  Reviewers appear to have either embraced the dramatist’s effort or dismissed it.  The Post’s Vincentelli felt that “while there’s very little that’s fresh in ‘Appropriate,’ the show’s still a fun ride” because “everything is amped up for gleeful maximum effect” by “Tommy’s energetic direction.”  Asserted the Post reviewer, “Subtle this is not, but Jacobs-Jenkins pushes all the buttons very efficiently” and Vincentelli concluded, “‘Appropriate’ proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you just have to make sure it turns smoothly.”

In contrast, the Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz opened his notice with: “There’s probably a worthwhile, if well-worn, story of unwanted and inescapable family legacies lurking in . . . ‘Appropriate.’  Too bad the virtues of this comedy-drama are hidden in director Liesl Tommy’s miscalibrated production.”  Dziemianowicz also wasn’t impressed with the performances, calling the acting “cartoonish, unconvincing and, finally, inappropriate.”  Ultimately, the Newsman concluded that “the play strives for a significance that remains elusive.”  The Times’s Brantley, however, called Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate “his very fine, subversively original new play . . . under the astute direction of Liesl Tommy.”  The play’s style, Brantley asserted, “is piercingly clear, with carefully drawn characters who speak in crisp and fluid dialogue” which has been “smoothly acted” by the ensemble. 

In “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker called Appropriate “a sprawling, Shepardesque play . . . that slyly approaches its huge subject.”  Jacobs-Jenkins and “his expert cast take care with the many familial relationships,” said the New Yorker writer, “and the young playwright has found a way to teach without preaching, leaving the ending, true to life, wide open.”  In an astute comparison of three of STC’s current productions (Appropriate, David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu, and Will Eno’s The Open House; see my ROT reports on the last two on 11 and 16 March) and an invocation of Leo Tolstoy’s admonition that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (it’s from Anna Karenina, 1873-1877), Jesse Green at New York magazine decided that the family members in Jacobs-Jenkins’s play “make the other clans look like Cleavers, and make you want to wield one.”  Green asked “Is Appropriate a comic tragedy?  A tragic comedy?  No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained” and it’s “as overstuffed as the house.”  (Green added that “at least the house gets cleaned during the action.  The play just gets more cluttered.”)  The actors, said the man from New York, must “hack their way through the emotional underbrush” and the playwright never “finds ways to seduce us into accepting his creatures as real and even attractive.”  Green concluded by declaring, “Fortunately, people like that don’t live in real houses.  They live only in theaters, and you get to leave them there.”  In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski described Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing style as “a fluid naturalism that seems to want to break into something grander,” but noted that in Appropriate “only the play's beginning and ending veer toward the symbolic.”  Soloski further noted that the playwright’s “characters speak vivid, self-aware dialogue,” though “the script wouldn't benefit from a more direct swing at its subjects.”  Tommy’s staging “too often trades messy horror for clean comedy” as the script “does call out for a more substantial kind of reckoning.” 

In the theater and entertainment press, Amy Stringer proclaimed in Show Business, “Everybody drop what you’re doing and go see this play immediately,” calling Appropriate an “enthralling play, expertly directed by Liesl Tommy.”  Stringer even warned theatergoers that the experience “will quite possibly leave you with your jaw on the floor, clutching the person sitting next to you.”  Of Jacobs-Jenkins’s dialogue, the Show Biz reviewer reported that “the thought behind each line is so well-articulated that almost nothing seems wasted or superfluous” and, aided by Tommy’s direction, the writing “takes the production to another level of realism.”  In her final analysis, Stringer insisted that “the way that every element of this play comes together . . . makes [Appropriate] a production that deserves to be seen.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Stephan Lee reported, “There's so much to look at on [the] Signature Theatre stage during Appropriate, yet so many of the play's major drivers remain totally unseen.”  The play, wrote the EW reviewer, “is . . . primarily a family drama rooted firmly in reality, but the ominous setting lends it the look of a horror show or ghost story—which, in some ways, it is.”  Lee felt that Jacobs-Jenkins’s “verbal artillery,” which “infuses the script with unforced, viperish humor,” is also “often jarring, but the show stops just short of over-indulgence.”  Describing it as “an uncommonly deft dramatic and technical achievement,” Lee reported that the play “speeds along” despite its length because of both Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing and Tommy’s “taut direction.”  Time Out New York‘s David Cote characterized Appriopriate as “a racialized, faintly mocking riff on the Dark Family Secrets genre so well defined by Albee, Shepard and, more recently, Tracy Letts.”  Finding the plot “a contrived exposé of attitudes” by “tedious and grating characters,” the man from TONY declared, “It’s potentially rich material, but the young Jacobs-Jenkins can’t write character or dialogue as well as the sources he’s synthesizing.”  Cote felt that “despite a talented cast and Liesl Tommy’s straight-faced direction,” the reviewer-writer kept “waiting for the narrative or aesthetic strategy to twist into something truly novel or perverse.  It never does.”  The TONY reviewer’s “bottom line”: “This family isn’t dysfunctional enough.”

In the on-line press, Elyse Sommer proclaimed on CurtainUp that the Lafayettes’ “problems and long festering resentments could keep several psychotherapists busy for years.”  Sommer characterized Appropriate, a “Southern Gothic serio-comedy,” as “both a comic variation [on] Tracy Letts's August: Osage County . . . and a subtly original and funny yet serious take on this dramatic genre” to which Jacobs-Jenkins “adds an ironic piquancy.”  The CurtainUp review-writer asserted that the playwright subverts “this essentially familiar setup” by the way he “builds the ever escalating conflicts . . . with humor and skillful character development,” creating “believable, nuanced” figures instead of “the caricatures they could easily be.”  Sommer concluded that the “disturbing yet entertaining play,” composed         “[w]ithout preaching” by Jacobs-Jenkins, “can still have the power to surprise and impress.”  In her New York Theatre Guide review, Tulis McCall, acknowledging that she “may be in the minority,” complained that the narrative is too diffuse because “Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t choose one character to pull the plot along.”  “No single person,” McCall explained, “has a goal around which the story is built.”  The cyber reviewer further asserted, “The writing in the second act borders on sophomoric,” and she lamented that despite Tommy’s “very fine direction,” Ramos’s “killer set,” and “excellent performances,” she was disappointed because “instead of being pulled into the Lafayette family basement, I was left out on the front lawn, asking the same question that Bo asked: Is there a point to all this?”  McCall nonetheless felt that Jacobs-Jenkins “is an adventuresome chronicler” and admitted that she “look[s] forward to more work from” the playwright. 

Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray reported that “Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates a compelling storytelling skill” and “skirts the line between the necessary and the uncomfortable, raising questions most of us would prefer were not asked in real life.”  Still, Murray felt, the playwright “plots a bit broadly, leaving certain elements and events looser than is absolutely ideal,” namely, “too many of the characters are saddled with too many crippling problems . . . and a number of events in the second act . . . do not ring true.”  The TB reviewer found, “Ultimately, alas, neither does the production, as Jacobs-Jenkins’s intense and surprising writing is never matched by what we see onstage,” for which Murray blamed Tommy, who brings “an acrid stuffiness about the proceedings that slows down the action and keeps much of it from being either tense or convincing.”  He summed up that “everything plays just a little too fake,” including, the review-writer added, the actors.  Murray’s final judgment, however, is quite positive, finding that Appropriate is “a vivid vivisection of white guilt given physical form, and a fascinating investigation from an African-American playwright who’s once again unleashing his distinctive voice and outlook.”  On TheaterMania, David Gordon called Appropriate “[a] great concept gone wrong” because Jacobs-Jenkins’s “idea is just so good that the decision to mash up hoary old theatrical tropes to tell his story is massively disappointing.”  Gordon lamented, “The performers try valiantly to find the heart within each role,” all of whom, the reviewer asserted, were “a group of archetypes.”  He further averred that Tommy's direction is “[m]ore detrimental” because it’s “tonally confusing and infuses a play that doesn't seem like a dark comedy with grimly comedic elements.”  The production, however, “is stunning to look at” with Ramos’s costumes and his “set eye-popping in its scope and messiness,” as well as Chu’s lighting and the sound design of Broken Chord.  “Ultimately,” concluded Gordon, “Jacobs-Jenkins’ message is obscured by his insistence on sticking to something so conventional.  What could have made a significant impression on the American dramatic canon lands with a mere ho-hum.” 


26 March 2014

The Last Frontier, Part 1: The Land Tour

[Almost a dozen years ago, my mother and I took a trip to Alaska, principally to see the fjords along the southeastern coast.  The trip, booked through the Holland America Line, was a combination of land tour and sea voyage, including Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks, and ending in Seward where we boarded HAL’s MS Statendam cruise ship for the seaborne portion of the trip down the Inside Passage of Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia.  I kept a sort of journal, which I later turned into a series of e-mails to friends and then collected into the narrative you see below.  The trip through Alaska lasted from Thursday, 7 August, through Sunday, 17 August 2003, and then Mom and I stayed in Vancouver until Tuesday, the 19th. 

[Overall, it was a marvelous trip, with a few glitches and missteps, so I’ve decided to spruce up the e-mail transcriptions and post at least some of the journal on ROT.  (I may post other installments of the travelogue in the future, but I haven’t decided that yet.)    My dad went to Alaska on business in 1960 because he’d joined a group of businessmen who started the Alaska-North American Investment Company in 1958 in anticipation of Alaska becoming the 49th state (3 January 1959).  He was in Fairbanks on 8 November when John Kennedy was elected president and brought back the next day’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the northernmost daily newspaper published in the U.S., with the banner headlines announcing the election outcome.  (A sidelight: This was the first presidential election in which all 50 of the current U.S. states voted, but Alaska, as it continues to do in most campaigns, voted for the Republican ticket of Vice President Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge.  Ironically, my family lived in the District of Columbia in 1960 so my parents couldn’t vote in presidential elections until the adoption of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1961—effective for the election of 1964.)  My mother had made a visit to Alaska with my father later, but I’d never been there.  The prospect of seeing the magnificent coastline and the glaciers was irresistible, however.].

(Cue musicYou should be humming “North To Alaska” or the theme from Northern Exposure.)
First, I should say that overall the trip was wonderful.  Some things connected to the tour didn’t go well, but the balance of the experience was great. 

Second, I’ll report that the flight(s) out were an awful experience— though not all of it was the airline’s fault.  (Most of it was, however.)  To start with, we had to change planes twice (that is, three flights), with changes in Denver and Seattle.  We took off from LaGuardia at just before 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, 7 August 2003, and didn’t get into Anchorage until about 2 a.m. the next morning, Alaska time (that’s 6 a.m. in New York!).  Now that included a three hour delay in Seattle because the plane, which was coming from Dulles, had been held up in Washington, D.C., for a thunderstorm (which, ironically, we had just missed when we left New York).  Furthermore, because of the local departure times of each flight, none of these was a meal flight.  You can be sure this was not a really pleasurable experience, even on top of the usual nastiness of flying these days.  It didn’t help matters, either, that because of the way our tour was to begin, we were carrying several days’ clothing change and toiletries in our carry-ons in addition to our “travel needs.”  (Our main luggage was going straight from Anchorage to Fairbanks; we traveled from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks before we caught up with our clothes.)  It took us longer to get to Anchorage than it did for me to get to Hong Kong in 1980 (which I did by way of Anchorage, ironically)!

There was one saving experience in all this—a literal silver lining, you might say.  On the flight from Seattle to Anchorage, out over the horizon, we saw the northern lights out the plane window.  Either because of the atmospherics, or because we were up looking down instead of down looking up, these lights weren’t colored like some pictures you see.  It was all sort of greenish, like the image on a radar screen or through a fluoroscope.  But it was still an eerie sight—like something that really shouldn’t be happening.  A close encounter of the weird kind!  (Ironically, if our flight had left on time, earlier in the evening before darkness fell in that part of the world, we might not have seen it.  And we didn’t see the lights again during our trip—though it probably didn’t help that most nights we went to bed before darkness really fell.  Sunset in Anchorage is after 10 p.m. at that time of year; Juneau is about an hour earlier.)

The return flight from Vancouver wasn’t nearly as bad—only one change in Chicago—though the time-change going east was against us so we left early, but got in very late.  (New York is three hours ahead of Vancouver, four hours ahead of Alaska.)

Our arrival was also part of the first negative circumstance concerning the Holland America Line and the tour aspect of the trip.  We arrived in Anchorage so late, of course—early Friday morning—that we had no time to see the city.  (We left a few hours later that morning for Denali.)  HAL had told Mom that there wasn’t anything scheduled as part of the trip on that first day in Anchorage.  So she booked a flight to get us in that day.  If we had gone a day earlier, it turns out, we’d have had some time to explore Anchorage, with or without guidance from HAL.  It was a bad decision based on bad information—not the first of that sort.  (HAL doles out the details of the trip in small increments, and isn’t really forthcoming with all of the specifics until you’re actually on location, so to speak.  It’s hard to make any plans on that basis.)

So, we arrived at 2 a.m., got to the hotel only to learn that the departure for the train to Denali was 7:30 a.m.!  I had called HAL to find out when that train left, and the HAL representative at the other end of the line told me very specifically that it left at 12:30 p.m., though they wanted us at the station at noon.  (This turns out to be the time the return train from Denali to Anchorage leaves—which we weren’t even taking as we were going on to Fairbanks, not back to Anchorage)  We had thought we’d have a little time to catch up with ourselves, since we were getting in so late (early?)—even without the Seattle delay.  WRONG!!

So we had our hour-and-a-half nap and got to the train to Denali National Park.   That’s the home of Mt. McKinley—not to mention a lot of wildlife. 

Now, the train itself is kind of interesting.  First of all, Alaska is the only state that still has its own railroad (aside, of course, from commuter trains and subways).  Of course, it doesn’t go very many places—Anchorage to Fairbanks to Seward, with stops along the way.  (In the winter, apparently, passengers can actually flag the train to stop anywhere along the track.)  Alaska Railroad is basically a regular, though limited, railroad, except that the big tour companies (HAL and Princess Cruises) have special cars that they pay ARR to pull.  These cars—I assume the Princess cars are about the same—are quite luxurious, with big seats, a bar, a restaurant, a guide, and (of course) a shop.  They’re double-deckers, with the seats up on top, with glass all around—including the roof.  The restaurant, galley, bathrooms, and shop are all below in one or the other of the two cars.  Each car has its own guide/narrator and bar.  The trip to Denali is about four hours, so it’s always over a meal (lunch up, dinner back), though it comes pretty early by my family’s standards.  Still, it’s a pretty decent meal. 

But the real attraction of the train ride was the scenery between Anchorage and Denali.  The train runs along a river for most of the trip, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so there were lots of views of mountains, forest, and river landscape, especially as the train rounds a curve or crosses a bridge and you can see way up ahead.  We were extremely fortunate because we had magnificent weather on our arrival.  The summer weather in Alaska is often rainy and foggy; August is the driest month, and it gets a little rain at least most days of the week.  (Alaskans call this “liquid sunshine” and just go about their business regardless.  Only we tourists get discommoded by the wet.  All the tour busses were stocked with umbrellas for the passengers, just in case.)  But when we got there, Anchorage was having record-breaking high temperatures—75 degrees!   (That’s about 24º Celsius for all you “metricals.”)   And bright sun and blue, cloudless skies, with unlimited visibility all around.  You’ll pardon the cliché, but it was breathtaking.  That’s no exaggeration. 

And as we got near Denali, we got several views of McKinley—a sight all the guidebooks warn might not be available because the mountain is usually shrouded in mist most days.  But as the train came around several curves, the guide warned us what was coming, and towering above the surrounding terrain—this huge, white mass glowing among the other, brown and green mountains.  You can think it’s just another mountain and be prepared not to see anything special—I’ve seen Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn many, many times—but all the preparation aside—McKinley, with an elevation of 20,237 feet, the highest peak in North America, gets a lot of word-of-mouth—the sight itself will subvert any sense of blasé déjà vu you might have: it’s truly majestic—another cliché that turns out to be accurate here.  When we saw it that day (we saw it again several times the next day, too), with the unusual weather, it was as if a huge spotlight were focused on the mountain—it actually glowed in contrast with the surrounding mountains, which are mostly not covered in snow.  It looked like a postcard—a doctored photo for tourist consumption.

Once again, the specter of HAL (isn’t that the name of the renegade computer in 2001?  Fits) arose to spoil this part of the trip, too, a little.  While we were on the train to Denali, a Gray Line/HAL salesperson was aboard, selling tours at the park.  Since we were arriving at about 12:30 or so on Friday afternoon and our pre-scheduled ride into the park wasn’t until Saturday morning, Mom and I considered some of the offerings.  We didn’t want to go rafting, golfing, horseback riding, or fishing, and the plane and helicopter rides seemed very expensive despite the magnificence of the views.  But there was a sort of dinner tour that was a carriage ride into the park—remember, during Alaskan summers, it stays light until 9:30-10:00—to a restaurant.  We thought it would be a pleasant way to spend the evening, until we got to the lodge and realized how tired we were and that we really didn’t want to go on the ride after all.  Aside from the fact that we’d been sold on the package a little too enthusiastically at the time, the salesgirl didn’t tell us that we couldn’t back out.  Mother, who can be really annoying when she wants to be, argued with the Gray Line manager at the lodge, and probably to get rid of us, he canceled our reservation. 

The lodge—called the McKinley Chalet, which is a little over-grand for what it actually is—is on the edge of the park.  (I’m not actually sure if it’s in the park or just outside it—in any case, the terrain is identical and contiguous anyway.)  Unfortunately, the little “village”—it’s really a collection of shops (souvenir, for the most part) and eateries (not quite restaurants)—was undergoing a major road-construction and everything was heavy equipment, dust, and dirt.  We looked around a little, then went in search of some place to have a very light supper.  The choices being minimal in the immediate range of the hotel, we ate in the lodge bar, which did have a beautiful view of the mountains and, just below us, the Nenana River.  The rafters go by below the bar as they round a bend in the river, which, like many in Alaska, is grayish because it’s glacier-fed.  (The glaciers grind up the bedrock as they move along, making glacial silt—a fine, gray powder—which colors the rivers and lakes whose sources are the glaciers.  The other streams and lakes are clear, and as we rode past one confluence of two rivers on the train, the guide pointed out that one was clear and the other cloudy as they ran together at that point: one river was spring-fed and the other glacial.  When we were whale-watching in Juneau later in the trip, the naturalist on the boat pointed out the part of the bay into which the glacial Mendenhall River runs—the river actually runs out into the bay several miles—which is visible because the river is opaque and the bay is clear.  And they stay that way—they don’t blend!  It sort of looks like Elsa Lanchester’s wig in Bride of Frankenstein.)  So, we sat and had a drink—Alaska beer, which is very, very good, by the way—and ate our supper—salmon, which I ate as often as I could (including salmon chowder on the train); we originally ordered reindeer sausage, but they were out of it!—and watched the rafters and the scenery.  It was still bright daylight—dusk didn’t come along until after we had retired.

And that’s what we did, after a short stroll along the Nenana riverbank—which is several hundred yards high above the rushing little stream.  We were still exhausted from our flights the day before (well, earlier that same day, actually).  We had sort of thought we’d nap on the train, but even at four hours, there was too much scenery to take in, so we never closed our eyes.  I guess we knocked off about nine o’clock, while the sun was still shining outside.  The park drive was scheduled early the next morning, anyway.

This was the next little complaint we had.  The various park tours, which were prearranged by HAL, not selected by the passengers as some of the shore excursions from the boat were later, were all scheduled for early in the morning, even though the train to Fairbanks wasn’t until late that afternoon.  We tried to switch to a later bus, but there wasn’t one available until too late to get us back in time for the train.  The runs were all mostly in the morning anyway, then late afternoon—there’s a big gap in the middle of the day.  The explanation was that there’s more chance to see wildlife early or late than there is in the middle of the afternoon.  Considering how little we saw anyway, I’d have taken the chance and spread the activity out a bit better. 

So early Saturday morning, 9 August, we drove through part of the park—Denali is the local Athabaskan name for McKinley; it means “The Great One” (apparently an homage to Jackie Gleason . . . NOT)—which, as I said, is vast.  (I won’t get into the controversy over the mountain’s name, so I’ll just note that in Alaska it’s known as Denali and in the Lower 48 and in federal references, it’s McKinley.  The Russians, when they owned Alyaska, called the mountain Bolshaya Gora, which means “the great mountain,” the Russian translation of Denali.)  The park’s full, official name is Denali National Park and Preserve, and it’s a huge wilderness.  In size, it’s smaller than the state of Vermont but larger than New Hampshire.  Denali’s 6 million acres (9,419 square miles) in area; the world’s largest protected open space, Northeast Greenland National Park, is 229 million acres (357,917 square miles).  It’s the third largest national park in the United States (the first two are also in Alaska) and the 25th largest protected area in the world.

The area’s principally forest, and it’s a preserve as well as a park, which means that it’s pretty much left natural with minimal interference by humans.  Trees that fall are left (unless they block a road or path), hunting is prohibited (except for some “subsistence” natives who are allowed to take what they need to live on, but not to sell or trade), and there are minimal roads and constructed facilities in most of the park.  You’re not even allowed to take away a rock as a souvenir or pick the wildflowers.  (This sort of contrasts with Israel when I was there: they fairly begged us to take a rock home as a souvenir!)  Only busses (and bicycles) are allowed past a certain point to keep vehicle traffic and pollution to a minimum—and the busses have to be old school busses, not the big, heavy tour or city busses.  As far as I could learn, the interior of the park is pretty much free of anything artificial—open only to hikers, bikers, campers, rafters, and climbers.  (You can fish in Denali, but it’s catch-and-release.) 

We had only a small amount of luck in the wildlife-sighting department.  No bears or moose, but we saw some Dall sheep and one caribou that actually came down to the road, practically right up to the bus.  Of course, we saw lots of eagles in flight, but none perched or close enough to get anything more than an impression.  (Binoculars, a pair of which we brought along, are very handy.)  The sheep, a noble-looking, long-haired, white sheep with immense curled horns that lives way up in the hills among the rocks and scrub to keep them safe from wolves and pumas, were pretty far away—how anyone spotted them, I’ll never know—but our driver came equipped with a telescope and he set it up at the roadside and we took turns looking up at the small herd.  These big sheep, which stand between 4½ and 6 feet high and weigh between 160 and 250 pounds for rams and 100 and 110 pounds for ewes, just have a wonderfully serious, stern look, set off by the great, curled horns that look almost too big to be real.  (Think of the biggest Shofars you’ve ever seen.) 

The caribou, or reindeer, on the other hand, looks very ungainly.  His horns are tremendous, too—as much as four feet long, way out of proportion to his head and body.  It was hard to see how he keeps from toppling over.  He was standing in some low vegetation near the roadside when we first saw him—it was tall enough to hide him when he put his head down to eat (caribou stand about three to six feet at the shoulder)—and he just hung out, eating and loping along in a meandering path in front of us.  Little by little, he moved toward the edge of the road, and we wondered if he’d actually climb down—the road was below the ground level by four or five feet—and eventually, he did.  He sort of slid down the cut, loped across the road and continued his lunch on the other side.  He pretty much ignored us.  (Many of the animals, such as the caribou and the moose, are unafraid of the busses—drivers keep the engine noise down and move very slowly or stop when an animal is spotted—but people are admonished not to get out of the bus, make noise, or even lean out of the windows.  This is ostensibly to prevent the animals from becoming used to humans too much; the park people don’t want the wildlife to be panicked by human contact, but they don’t want them to become too people-friendly, either.  Seems wise.)

We got back to the lodge in the late morning, but had to vacate the room ay 11 so we couldn’t even take a short nap.  There wasn’t really enough time to get on some other excursion, even if there had been one that appealed to us, and we’d already explored the “village” as much as we wanted to.  (Besides being mostly shops—it’s not really a village; no one lives there—and all that dust, it’s spread along George Parks Highway so it’s a long trek even just to poke around.)  This is what I meant that the tour aspects of the trip left much to be desired, even if the Alaskan aspects tried to make up for it. 

So we killed some time in the chalet lobby until the train, which actually left a little early to everyone’s surprise.  (Indeed, one couple had booked a plane flight—”flightseeing,” they call it—over the park and McKinley for the afternoon, and got back just in time to see the train depart!  They would have been fine if it hadn’t left earlier than scheduled, and people on the trip who knew them even reported that they weren’t aboard when the train started to pull out.  The tour people put them on a helicopter, called the train, and we waited at a siding down the track several miles as they were delivered to the train.  Pretty stupid.)  Anyway, the second train ride was nothing like the first.  The cars were the same, of course, though we had a real nebbish of a guide this time—our first guide was quite wonderful, even though she wasn’t a native Alaskan; she came up from Southern California for a break just to take this job—but the terrain is ugly and uninteresting between Denali and Fairbanks just as soon as you leave the park area.  (For the first couple of miles—until we stopped for our delinquent passengers—there were spectacular cliffs as we rolled along the Nenana River.)  This time, we did nap.  And since the dinner was going to be served so early—around 5:30—we skipped it and opted for the chance we could get something at or near the hotel in Fairbanks when we arrived at about 7.  We did have a drink en route, though!

This part of the trip was a total loss really, all due to HAL’s planning.  Well, first we had trouble at the hotel, which may have been the hotel’s fault rather than HAL’s, though HAL wasn’t helpful in fixing it.  (One of our traveling companions also had a problem with which HAL was unhelpful.  Fairbanks was where our main luggage caught up with us—for one night only, then it went off to the ship pretty much directly—and this couple didn’t get theirs.  It didn’t make it to Fairbanks somehow, and the HAL representatives in the hotel were incompetent as far as locating it and getting it sent to the right place.  Alaska hires kids for everything—hotels, restaurants, the tour representatives, and the like.  They look like highschoolers, but I suspect they’re college age or thereabouts, and this may be just summer-season hiring, but they’re very young and not very resourceful when it comes to handling unexpected situations.  In this case, they explained that the phone they had at the hotel could only call locally, not back to Anchorage, so they had to wait till they could get to their Fairbanks office to locate the bags in Anchorage.  Mother asked why they couldn’t just use the hotel’s phone under the circumstances—an obvious idea, I thought—and they eventually did locate the bags at the hotel we used in Anchorage.  They were routed directly to the ship in Seward—and did arrive there, though the couple were worried the whole time we were in Fairbanks and en route to Seward.) 

Our problem was simpler, though potentially more embarrassing.  Mom and I were sharing a room, but our reservations all along the way specified two beds.  Well, the Fairbanks hotel had us in a room with a double bed—obviously unacceptable.  The HAL people were no help at all, of course, and when Mother called the desk, they offered to put us in a room with a convertible or another room in which they would add a roll-away.  (The room we were in originally couldn’t handle even a cot.)  We didn’t think either of these was an acceptable solution, and Mother ended up talking to the manager.  (I said she can be really annoying—and persistent, too—when she wants.)  He gave us the same options.  Then I suggested, since they were willing to move us anyway, why couldn’t they just give me another room?—at their expense, of course: it was their mistake.  “There isn’t another room,” said the manager.  “Ridiculous,” said I.  “If you were going to move us, then there’s obviously another room.”  “Oh . . . yes,” said the manager.  Silly rabbit!  (I got a separate room for the night—a suite actually, with that fold-out sofa we didn’t need.  But two TV’s!)

Anyway, it was just overnight, and by now it was latish so we went in search of a light supper again.  (We still weren’t hungry, even though we’d had lunch back at Denali.)  Well, there was a saloon-like place across the street (part of another, cheaper motel) and a Chinese restaurant around the corner.  Someone on the train had mentioned the Chinese place, and we kind of thought that would be best for our needs, so we strolled over and . . . it was closed!  Not just closed for the day, or on vacation—out of business!  You’d think the hotel folks would have known this, no?  The saloon was unappetizing—and very warm inside—so we ended up having a bowl of soup—salmon chowder again for me—at the hotel restaurant.  It met our needs, but we’d kind of hoped to do it outside the hotel just for the change.

Next to missing the entire city of Anchorage because of HAL’s bad advice, the Fairbanks visit on Sunday, 10 August, was the tour’s biggest failing.  We never saw the town at all.  Fairbanks, less than 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, is, after all, the largest city (about 30,000 people as of 2000) in the interior of Alaska, third in size to Anchorage (271,000) and Juneau (31,000).  Founded in 1901, it’s got a frontier history and was at the heart of one of the principal gold rushes that drew thousands to Alaska between 1898 and 1910 or so.  As I mentioned in my introduction, it’s home to the daily newspaper published the farthest north within the United States, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, built between 1974 and 1977, passes through the city.  There’s a helluva lot of history in Fairbanks, and we never saw any of it to speak of!

This was one of the stops where HAL booked the activity, and we assumed it would include at least some of Fairbanks’s sights.  But, NOOooo!  We get up (early again, of course) and get taken to a gold dredge.  Okay, the guide does point out some of the city landmarks, but just as we pass by them on the way.  We didn’t get any feel for the town at all.  Then we spend a couple of hours at this defunct gold dredge, Goldstream Dredge No. 8, which went out of operation in 1959.  (It began operations in 1928.)  I mean, it’s an interesting thing—both because it’s a huge, complex machine (built by a shipyard, interestingly enough) and because the gold-dredging is a complicated operation about which I, at least, knew nothing.  You see pictures and read stories about digging for gold, mining for it, panning for it, but not, as far as I know, dredging for it.  Anyway, the dredge is this immense, barge-like thing, a five-story, 1,065-ton structure, with a conveyor belt contraption equipped with ¾-ton, giant iron buckets that dug into the side of a ditch, pulling up large quantities of gold-laden soil.  (The ditch itself was flooded artificially, so the dredge floats.)  In 31 years of operation, the dredge recovered 7½ million ounces of gold.  The dirt was essentially washed to leave the ore behind, and then the ore was amalgamated with mercury to separate the gold out, the amalgam was heated to release the gold, which was then formed into ingots or bars for shipment.  It was a floating (and noisy, filthy, sweaty) gold factory which ran 24/7 except for a two-week period or so when it was cleaned and maintained.  (After the tour of the dredge, everyone got a “poke” of ore-bearing dirt and a pan and went to long troughs to pan for little bits of gold.  It was silly and boring—especially since, though they weighed your gold and told you what it was worth, they didn’t buy it from you.  Dumb.)  Afterwards, they served a miners’ lunch—stew and biscuits—which was all right, considering . . . except that it was only 10:30 in the morning!  All in all, even if the story of the dredge is interesting, I could have done without it, and I’d much rather have seen some of Fairbanks and been let loose to poke around a little.

Then came one of the dumbest bits of scheduling in the whole trip.  All along, there was a lot of wasted time waiting for stuff—busses, planes, tenders, so on—which is especially aggravating since we always seemed to have to get up early in the morning, then have time to kill later that couldn’t be used efficiently (either for a rest or poking about).  But this was really stupid.  The gold dredge bit was over before noon and we drove a ways along Steese Highway to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint, a spot outside Fairbanks where you can go up to the 48-inch pipe and touch it—an experience of only mild interest to me: it’s a big, fat pipe!—then we went directly to the airport to fly back to Anchorage to meet a bus to drive to Seward, where we boarded the ship.  Okay, not only did that seem unnecessarily circuitous—why not get directly from Fairbanks to Seward?  The train goes there, and I’d bet there are flights, too.  Maybe it just wasn’t convenient, I don’t know, but the really dumb part was that we got to the airport before 1 p.m. for a flight that didn’t take off until 3.  At the very least, we could have done the dredge thing a little later in the morning and spaced the day out better.  (Lunch at 11:30 instead of 10:30, maybe?)  As you can imagine, Fairbanks International (its real name) isn’t the biggest airport around.  I mean, we’re talking about a town that’d fit comfortably into Union Square Park with room left over for the Greenmarket.  So we were stuck in this little airport for several hours, just waiting. 

Now, this set me up for trouble—not the tour’s fault, really.  Of course, there was security, as there is everywhere now, and we went through the system, showed our tickets and had our carry-ons screened, and so on.  But now we had all this time to kill.  There was a store right next to the waiting area, and they had newspapers, so I decided to go get one to occupy me during the wait and the flight.  But the door into the shop from the waiting area was closed at that particular hour (go know—it was lunchtime maybe), and I saw another door around the corner.  I went there, out one door and in another, got my paper, and then realized what I must have done.  I’d left the waiting area and reentered the unsecure area outside the security check.  And I didn’t bring my boarding pass with me.  I didn’t think I was going out, and the door I left by didn’t have a sign saying anything like, “if you leave, you can’t ever, ever come back!”  In this case, it was a good thing the airport is so small.  The security people paged Mom and she came back with my boarding pass and I got back into the waiting area.  Of course, when they paged her, no one said, ‘Bring your boarding passes,’ so she had to come to the security area, find out what was up, go back to get the pass, and return.  Mom doesn’t move real fast anymore, you know.  I’m sitting there, thinking—what if I’d been traveling alone?  I’d have really been SOL.

Well, that killed a little time at least.

The flight to Anchorage had nothing to report, and the bus to Seward was a nice—but long (about 130 miles, 2½ hours)—drive on Seward Highway along the coast out of Anchorage and then across the Kenai Peninsula.  There were a few wildlife spottings along the way—mountain goats, the ubiquitous eagles (in flight again)—and the driver/guide pointed out some sights as we went.  As you may know, Anchorage was at the center of a devastating earthquake/tsunami in March 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake—most of the city was destroyed, and whole outlying towns were just carried away—and it was curious, and daunting, to see the remains of towns that no longer existed because of the force of nature, even in my own lifetime.  I mean, I visited Pompeii back in the ’60s and contemplated what it might have been like to be eating supper when Vesuvius erupted, but that was ancient history.  I was already 17 at the time of this natural disaster—a fully sentient human being (or, as a much younger classmate in my MFA program said to me, I was “already a person”!)—and there were people in Anchorage and, say, Portage, which was completely wiped out, who’d have been high school juniors just like me when the water rose up.

[In Seward, we  boarded the Statendam on Sunday, 10 August, for the coastal voyage south, stopping at Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan, with anchorages along the way (no disembarking) to see some fjords and glaciers from the sea.  If I post another section of my log, the next installment will cover part of the cruise down the Inside Passage.]