Produced by: San Francisco Playhouse
Featuring: Tristan Cunningham, Susi Damilano, Carl Lumbly and Cathleen Riddley
Directed by: Jon tracy
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
When: January 24 through March 7, 2015
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets: $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org
the family ties that bind
of meaningful play by Julie Hébert
Forbidden love. The persistence of memory. The meaning of family.
These are the themes explored in Julie Hébert's visually striking "Tree," viewed through the filter of mid-20th century race relations. Playing through March 7 in its regional premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, "Tree" is a semi-autobiographical look at three generations of a family. When Didi Marcantel, a female, Caucasian gender studies professor from Louisiana, arrives at the home of JJ (granddaughter), Leo (son) and Mrs. Jessalyn Price (mother), an African-American family in Chicago, she stirs up painful memories of a past that is never really more than an arm's length away in the unkempt Price household.
The stage is riddled with boxes, boxes always within reach but never acknowledged boxes filled with Jessalyn's memories. It's the first thing we notice as we walk into the theater: boxes stacked so high and haphazardy, some appear to be floating; boxes embedded so deep in spots, they've become part of the walls. Letters are strewn about at the front of the stage, which doubles as a swamp, and cheap furniture dots the rooms. It could almost be the set of "Sanford and Son," but for the ghostly tint to the proceedings.
The whole play has a Southern Gothic, dreamlike quality: lighting that causes characters to look spectral; Jessalyn's often surreal dialogue; the disorienting mix of the past with the present; the bedroom and the boxes which seem to levitate as Jessalyn recites another love letter from memory, the only time she is truly at peace.
Cathleen Riddley, as Jessalyn, is a revelation. At the drop of a hat, she shifts from maternal gentleness, to childlike wonder, to comic explosions of anger (complete with finger guns and expletives), to pure soul-twisting agony. Riddley attacks the role like she's playing an extreme sport. She wails, cracks wise, sings old spirituals, has temper tantrums, becomes as bashful as a toddler. Everything else revolves around Riddley's wonderful performance.
The play opens to Jessalyn suffering from dementia, being cared for by Leo. Mostly confined to her room upstairs, Leo (Carl Lumby) brings her breakfast in bed, and calms her down when the fog of her mind lifts and is replaced by layers of rage that culminate in things being thrown around. When Didi (Susi Damilano) arrives on the doorstep with a stack of love letters that Leo's mother sent her father while he was a Marine during wartime years earlier, it is as if an angel has come to visit, a bridge to Jessalyn's one true love. Didi, a genuine alpha female, having found the letters while sorting through her father's things after he passed away, has become obsessed with uncovering the other side of this love story. It's Didi who begins to rifle through the boxes to, in effect, chip away at the brittle foundation of the Price home.
At the Jan. 23 preview performance, Damilano, in some of the crucial scenes, brought across the character of Didi a bit wooden. Partly this is due to the character's ambiguity: Is Didi gay? Is she harboring inappropriate feelings toward her half-brother? But I was never convinced that the character Didi had any real depth, whereas one could see the demons and angels playing out their battle right on Lumby's face. Damilano, who's also producing director and co-founder of San Francisco Playhouse,had trouble maintaining a Southern accent, at times gravitating toward Northeastern.
But none of these concerns were deal-breakers. More than making up for this and any other speed bumps JJ (Tristan Cunningham) seems to merely be a generic marker for the youngest generation are the interplay between Leo and mother, the smartly conceived stage and the overall richness of Hébert's dialogue poetic and confident, propelling an ever-heightening mystery of four characters pecking away at a secret that binds them together at the same time it is tearing them apart. The pacing was taut; it didn't feel like we were sitting for nearly two hours without an intermission.
"Tree," which had its world premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles in the fall of 2009, and won the PEN Center award for drama in 2010, was sparked when Hébert went through letters her father had sent her mother while he was courting her and serving in the Korean conflict. Hébert was struck by how different the father in the letters was from the one she knew. The playwright, who is white, also had a black friend while living in rural Louisiana, a friend she was close enough with that they called each other sisters, but whose experiences in the segregated South were vastly different -- a theme she explores with Leo and Didi. In the case of Didi, the hoped-for letters are the key to a tender side of her father she never knew, as they were always butting heads, a process she repeats with son Leo.
In the end, "Tree" is more a rumination on family than race about how the family must be the foundation that race relations are to be built upon. Or, to use an analogy that better fits the play's title, a tree can't grow properly if each part is conspiring against the other. As Hébert told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, "['Tree'] started out about race and ended up about family."
At the same time, these are lives on pause: Didi can't restart her life until she can get past her father's pain; Leo's life is bogged down in the blame he assigns his father for the ghosts that haunt his home (exacerbated by the likely fact that he's never left the roost); and Jessalyn, who lived a whole other life after relocating to Chicago with her young son, has withdrawn into that short, whirlwind romance before the war, after which Leo's father followed his parents' wishes by severing his ties with Jessalyn.
"Tree" also carries the message to continue the analogy that if a family (tree) keeps one of its members (branches) from growing, it's better to clip off the healthy branch, replant it and try again; otherwise the whole tree festers and eventually collapses. As one character blurts at the last, a question that reverberates long after the play ends, "What are we waiting for?"
Email Kevin Kelly at email@example.com