Category Archive for: ‘Kedar K. Adour’

TREE is a “should see” at SF Playhouse

Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano) looks on as Mrs. Jessalyn Price (Cathleen Riddley) and her son Leo (Carl Lumbly) argue.

TREE: Drama by Julie Hébert.  Directed by Jon Tracy.  San Francisco Playhouse, 490 Post Street (2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel,  San Francisco. (415) 677-9596.  January 20 – March 7, 2015

 TREE is a “should see” at SF Playhouse Rating: ★★★★☆

In the past 4 days two plays have opened in San Francisco just a few blocks apart in which letters written in the past are integral to plot, shrouded in mystery, and define character. The first was A.C.T’s staging of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink and the other is Julie Hebert’s Tree unfolding on the San Francisco Playhouse stage. Both deal with inter-racial love but there the similarity ends.

Tree had its world premiere in 2009 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre-Los Angeles and since has played in only in two other major venues (Chicago and Atlanta) in 2011even though it is a prize winning play (Pen Award) and requires only four characters. However those characters represent three generations and the author suggests a two level set that may be too much of a challenge for most small theatres. That challenge is well met by the San Francisco Playhouse that is noted for producing problematic plays.

The opening scene introduces a black man, Leo Price (Carl Lumbly) caring for Jessalyn Price (Cathleen Riddley) his aging mother who has dementia living in a past world of her confused mind. Into this setting arrives Didi (Susi Damilano) a white woman with packet of love letters written by Jessalyn to Didi’s recently deceased white father.  Those letters indicate that Leo and Didi had the same father and are half-brother and sister. Didi desires to be part of Leo’s family but he is resistant.  Didi’s persistence is intrusive and Leo’s rejection becomes volatile allowing author Hebert to inject an “in vino veritas” scene with the stimulus being beer rather than wine.

As the stand-off between Leo and Didi continues there are intriguing scenes where Mrs. Price has poetic flights of fancy intermingled with child-like rants that eventually make sense. On one of her trips down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom out to the porch she semi-bonds with Didi creating a thought provoking situation that softens Leo reticence.

That reticence is further eroded when Leo’s college age daughter JJ (Tristan Cunningham) hesitantly accepts Didi as her aunt and helps search for the “other side of the story” represented by letters written by Didi’s father to Jessalyn. The readings of those letters define a beautiful love that persisted years after inter-racial animosity caused a physical separation.

Cathleen Riddley delivers a tour-de-force performance as Jessalyn giving substance and credibility to her shifts from reality to confused mental recollections.  Carl Lumbly’s understated acting is a joy to observe and his one burst of physicality is a classic Jon Tracy directorial conceit. Susi Damilano gives substance and veracity to the character of Didi and demonstrates great comic timing in the few scenes that add a bit of humor to the evening filled with tension.

This play does not demonstrate Jon Tracy’s directorial skill that may be the fault of the script. It is performed without intermission lasting (on opening night) about 2 hours even though there is a natural break in the action. He is not aided by Nina Ball’s fantastic multi-area set surrounded by boxes giving a surrealistic patina to what might benefit from a more realistic setting.

The last paragraph is not a criticism but an observation. The total production is best described    as a “should see” evening.

CAST: Carl Lumbly as Leo Price;  Cathleen Riddley as Mrs. Jessalyn Price;  Susi Damilano as Didi Marcantel; Tristan Cunningham as  JJ Price.

CREATIVE CAST: Nina Ball (Set design); Michael Oesch/Kurt Landisman (Light design); Theodore J.H. Hulsker (Sound design) and Abra Berman (Costume design).

Kedar K. Adour, MD.

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Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano) looks on as Mrs. Jessalyn Price (Cathleen Riddley) and her son Leo (Carl Lumbly) argue.

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