Twenty years on, Word for Word as brilliant as ever
EXTENDED THROUGH SEPT. 13
JoAnne Winter (left) is Viny Liberty, Jeri Lynn Cohen (center) is Calliope Marsh and Stephanie Hunt is Libbie Liberty in Word for Word’s 20th anniversary production In Friendship at Z Below. Below: Amy Kossow (left) is Mrs. Toplady, Patricia Silver (center) is Mrs. Mayor Uppers and Nancy Shelby is Mrs. Postmaster Sykes in short stories by Zona Gale adapted for the stage by Word for Word. Photos by Mark Leialoha
Here we thought Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were giving a master class in the fine art of the theater. Turns out there’s an equally good master class happening at Z Below, the climate-controlled space (formerly Traveling Jewish Theater) underneath Z Space. That’s where the geniuses (genii?) behind Word for Word are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a sharp-tongued, warmhearted show called In Friendship based on the stories of Zona Gale.
The nine women who founded the company, including artistic directors Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, are all performing in the show (together for the first time, which seems hard to believe). So there’s more going on here than just another show, which happens to be an extraordinarily strong example of what Word for Word does – short works of fiction fully and beautifully adapted for the stage without altering a single word of the original text. Works of literature become, in the hands of these artists, imaginative, compelling and often transporting works of theater without compromising what made them great in the first place. That’s a hell of a formula.
The stories here are about the bonds between women (and two men – shout outs to Paul Finocchiaro and Joel Mullenix, who also directed four of the six stories) in the small town of Friendship. Judging by the harsh treatment of vowels, the town is located in the northern Midwest, and it’s a place where everyone is reasonably healthy and well situated. That leaves plenty of time for the politics of society, community and necessity. The women have all kinds of currents flowing between them – some friendly, some not – but they essentially run the town.
How appropriate, then, that the women of Word for Word chose these stories to mark two decades of some of the Bay Area’s best theater making. Watching these friends, co-stars and company members bring these stories to life is sheer pleasure on every level. Gale, the first woman to win the Pulitzer for drama, has a crisp way with words, and though there’s a humorous, almost cartoonish bent to her take on small-town America, there’s also a great deal that is sharply observed and, ultimately, quite heartfelt.
The first half of the two-hour show is devoted to competing social engagements and an attempt to reinvent the church bazaar as seen through the eyes of a relative newcomer to the town, who also happens to be a writer (Harloe). This is an effective way to get to know the town’s personalities and begin to understand the pecking order of local society. Mis’ Postmaster Sykes (Nancy Shelby) is clearly at the top of the heap, and Mrs. Ricker and Kitton (Winter), a cleaning lady who has come into an inheritance, is clearly at the opposite end. In the middle are people like the nervous but compassionate Mis’ Amanda Toplady (Amy Kossow); the domineering new lady in town, Mrs. Oliver Wheeler Johnson (Stephanie Hunt); a somewhat scandalized nearly former mayor’s wife (Patricia Silver); and the forceful Mis’ Holcomb-that-was-Mame-Bliss (Sheila Balter).
Scenic designer Giulio Perrone allows the ensemble to create an entire town through his simple but effective moving white panels that create living rooms, dining rooms, street corners and a firehouse, among many other things.
In Act 2, once we’re deep into the town’s psyche and well into the fall, things get more blatantly emotional. Director Delia MacDougall, who also performs in the final two stories, brings such warmth and intelligence to the stage that any trace of sentimentality is banished and only genuine feeling remains.
The story zeroes in on Harloe’s nameless writer and the woman she has most bonded with, the outspoken Calliope Marsh (a genius Jeri Lynn Cohen who artfully manages to never over- or under-play her bold character). It’s coming on Thanksgiving and these two women, who don’t have much family, want to do something for the community and give themselves a sense of holiday that doesn’t involve depression or loneliness.
What they end up creating is the very definition of holiday spirit, and not to sound cloying or cliché about it (the story is neither of those things), you may end up feeling more genuinely excited for Thanksgiving than you have in years.
The show concludes in a rush of emotion, for the characters we’ve just met, for the wonderful actors we’ve been watching and for the glory of Word for Word on the occasion of its 20th.
On a personal note, I have loved Word for Word since I first saw the work nearly 20 years ago. Intelligent, enterprising and always rewarding, this company, whether on its own or in one of the many great collaborations that have happened over the years, is original and inspiring. A huge congratulations to the women of Word for Word, simply one of the great theatrical endeavors.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Word for Word’s In Friendship continues an extended run through Sept. 13 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 866-811-411 or visit www.zspace.org.