Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Becky Shaw at SF Playhouse--a great excuse to cross the bridge.

By John A. McMullen II
Friday February 03, 2012 - 11:09:00 AM
Lauren English, Lee Dolson, Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns
Jessica Palopoli
Lauren English, Lee Dolson, Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns

It’s sort of annoying when you can’t criticize a play because it’s so good. A baker needs to bake, a critic needs to criticize. That noted, this stymied critic is regaled to remind you that, every so often, there is a reason to cross the bridge. Becky Shaw at SF Playhouse is a great excuse. 

It’s about bigger-than-life women and the men who love them. It may change your consciousness and clarify some ways of the world that we often witness but seldom recognize. 

Damaged people, a dead father, buried secrets, fragile women are all staples of drama back beyond Hamlet. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo took these themes and more in Becky Shaw and with a facility for truth, insight, and witty writing, fashioned a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her dialogue is full of snipes and wisecracks which cleans the emotional palate so we can take another spoonful of bitterness. 

Damaged people in conflict make good plays. Her characters are distinct and their world view is markedly different, which attracts them to one another and which is a great source of conflict. 

It is a truism that broken, histrionic women whose alternating come-hither/get-away/save-me actions 

(which seem more instinct than strategy) always up the passion and attention of men.  

In the pre-curtain speech, artistic director Bill English said something important beyond, “Turn off your cell phones.” He called theatre an “empathy gym” where you come for an emotional work-out. In this cold, cutting world, where people beg on the streets after six million foreclosures and where assassination and torture are condoned, one has to wear rhino-hide or fall by the wayside. He reminded us that theatre is a place to go to reconnect with being human and work the compassion muscle. 

Then the play turned out to be about empathy, the search for it, and its rarity these days. 

We have two heroines: Suzanna and Becky. Both actresses are tall women and magnetically attractive; their stature highlights their importance in the play.  

Liz Sklar plays psychology grad student Suzanna who is torn between the “manner” to which she has been born, and the possibility of salvation through her idealistic, feminist, ultra-empathetic St. George of a husband Andrew (Lee Dolson) who is out to rescue her from the realist money-managing dragon of her brother-lover Max (Brian Robert Burns). Max is the adopted care-taker of the family and tries to heal them with infusions of reality. As part of his nature and part of his profession, Max has that credit-debit sheet perspective of the world which too often precludes compassion. 

These folks are harsh in the manner that the upper-classes seem to have a corner on. Their home-schooling in cutting remarks and psychological judo seems to insure victory in professional life and mutually assured destruction in their personal ones. Into their circle comes an upstart outsider with chops of her own. The title role is embodied by Lauren English who presents a vulnerable, tearful naïf in an inappropriately revealing dress beneath which may lurk a crocodile.  

The cast of five are all award-worthy. Amy Glazer’s direction makes their engagements hyper-real , full of the non-verbal grimaces, “looks,” and gestures we all use to communicate emotionally, but which are too seldom seen in theatre acting. The timing and rhythms of the repartee and beat changes are impeccable and evidence of a close collaboration between actor and director. 

The play is a little like a biting “Importance of Being Earnest” for a new age with those witty, quotable sayings that fill the play of Oscar Wilde. Lorri Holt, a premier Bay Area actress who created the lead female role in the original Angels in America, can now play mother, and with this vehicle she gets a lot of the good lines. For example, Ms. Holt dispenses this wonderful, cynical Gionfriddo insight and turn of phrase when advising daughter Suzanna, “Be careful about chasing after goodness. When it comes to men, goodness and incompetence often go hand-in-hand.”  

The lighting by Michael Oesch is an object lesson in how to light a small stage with little throw-distance. Everywhere the actors move, they are lit in an almost cinematic way. The look changes subtly from a hotel room to a living room to a café, and captures the luminosity of each separate venue. 

Bill English’s set moves the play along by mysteriously changing the dimensions of the stage in pure entre-scene black-outs so that the illusion is not broken.  

It’s in a small theater up on Sutter, and the walk up from the Powell Street BART offers a prelude with great street theatre vérité.  

BECKY SHAW by Gina Gionfriddo 

Directed by Amy Glazer 

At SF PLAYHOUSE through March 10 

533 Sutter, SF (Jean Shelton Theatre) or (415) 677-9596 

Set by Bill English, Lighting by Michael Oesch, Sound by Steve Shoenbeck, Costumes by Miyuki Bierlien, Sound by Gregg Schilling 

With: Brian Robert Burns*, Lee Dolson, Lauren English*, Lorri Holt*, Liz Sklar* (*AEA)