Category Archive for: ‘Judy Richter’

Tension and death served at fascinating ‘Fred’s Diner’

As the play opens, a man lies dead on the floor while a nearby woman holds a baseball bat and looks at him.

How they got to that point is revealed in English playwright Penelope Skinner’s “Fred’s Diner,” making its American premiere at the Magic Theatre.

Set shortly before Christmas in the present, the action unfolds in an English roadside diner modeled after one in the U.S. in the ’50s.

Fred (Donald Sage Mackay), its 45-year-old owner, employs three waitresses. One is his 17-year-old daughter, Melissa (Katharine Chin). Another is 52-year-old Heather (Julia McNeal). The most recent addition is 31-year-old Chloe (Jessi Campbell), returning from a year or so traveling, mainly in Thailand.

All three women have dreams. Perhaps the most ambitious is Melissa, who has applied to study law at Oxford. Chloe wants a better life, but she’s not sure how she’ll achieve it.

Heather wants to fill the diner’s vacant manager position. She’s also trying to re-establish her life after being imprisoned for murdering her husband after enduring years of severe physical abuse.

Completing the cast are two customers. One is a regular, Sunny (Terry Lamb), a 57-year-old motorway driver who has lived in England for several years after spending most of his life in India. He’s attracted to the wary Heather.

Finally there’s the down-on-his luck, 21-year-old Greg (Nick Day), whose parents won’t help him.

Most of the tension comes from whether Melissa will be admitted to Oxford, whether Heather will go out with Sunny and who will become the new manager.

A deeper source of tension is the relationship between Fred and Melissa. An early scene and some subsequent scenes hint at possible abuse or even incest along with an unhealthy mutual dependence.

Greatly aided by the sure direction of Magic artistic director Loretta Greco and her well chosen cast, playwright Skinner gradually builds to the inevitable yet surprising conclusion.

McNeal’s Heather is an especially interesting character, serving as a kind of mother figure for Melissa while beginning to harbor her own hopes for a future with Lamb’s kindly Sunny.

Campbell’s Chloe may be a bit of a flake, but she can be ambitious as well as compassionate. Chin’s Melissa talks too fast at times, but she convincingly portrays the young woman’s hopes and emotional conflicts.

Mackay’s Fred is an ambiguous character, apparently solid as a businessman, but drinking too much makes him nasty or maudlin. Greg is the play’s least developed character.

Designed by Erik Flatmo, the set with its chrome, Formica and jukebox serves the play well, as do Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Alex Jaeger’s costumes. The sound by Sara Huddleston features ’50s tunes, one of which provides the play’s ultimate irony.

Running about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission, “Fred’s Diner” is a thought-provoking work by a rising young playwright.

It will continue through Oct. 11 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit


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