Word for Word enlivens stories by Donoghue, Tóibín

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Franny (Rosie Hallett) is read to by her brother (Rudy Guerrero) one family evening in a scene from Emma Donoghue’s “Night Vision,” part of Word for Word’s Stories by Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín at Z Below. Below: Lady Gregory (Stephanie Hunt) contemplates her secret in Tóibín’s “Silence.” Photos by Julie Schuchard

There is nothing more comforting than a Word for Word production. This extraordinary company’s rich stage adaptations of short fiction for the stage can be thrilling, inventive, moving, incisive, funny and thought provoking. And, in that way that great writing can take you into that zone of alternate experience, they can be comforting. Maybe that’s akin to the joy of being read to – there is that element in play, but augmented with the beauty of sets, lights, costumes, music and the combined thrill of both reading and live theater.

The new Word for Word show, Stories by Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóbín now at Z Below, comprises two gentle, emotionally rich stories by Irish writers who both happen to be nominated for Academy Awards this year: Donoghue for her adaptation of her novel Room for the screen and Tóibín for the film version of his novel Brooklyn. In their selected stories, both writers are inspired by the lives of real women finding their voices as writers.

Donoghue’s story “Night Vision” from her 2004 collection The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits begins the two-hour evening with a look at the early life of Frances Brown, later known as the “Blind Poetess of Donegal.” Brown, played by , narrates the story of how, amid the chaos and love of a large family, she came to love words and sentences. Franny, as she is called by her family members, is clearly a writer in the making when she makes observations like, “Color is when you can taste something with your eyes.”

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There’s tension in the Brown household on this night because there has been trouble at the schoolhouse. Franny attended her first, and possibly her last, class, and though her aptitude and intelligence cannot be questioned, the powers that be see only her blindness, the result of smallpox. A blind girl, they say, has no place in the classroom for she is a “stunted little girl.”

As played by Hallet and under the smooth direction of Becca Wolff, Franny is a life force who refuses to be cowed by the stupidity and cruelty of others: “The Minister must be wrong. Didn’t I live, when bigger children died of the same fever? This must mean I have been chosen for something. There must be another future for me, if I’m not to be a woman like other women and have twelve children. If I do not grow up to be a poet, then what does that all mean?”

Night Vision is a beautiful story gently and sensitively brought to life by Wolff and her sharp six-person ensemble headed by the luminous Hallett.

The second story is Tóibín’s “Silence” from his 2011 collection The Empty Family. It’s subject is Isabelle Augusta, known as Lady Gregory one of the founders of the revered Abbey Theatre. But before she was an accomplished writer and literary force in her own right, she was, according to Tóibín, an almost painfully self-aware new wife married to a man 35 years her senior.

As played by Stephanie Hunt, Lady Gregory has a vibrant interior life, even as she maintains a placid exterior, fulfilling the duties as wife and companion to Lord William Gregory (Richard Farrell).

The thrust of the story stems from an item found in one of Henry James’ journals, something that was shared with him by Lady Gregory about an affair she had with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (Rudy Guerrero), and into whose published work she managed to include some of her own work.

Directed by Jim Cave, the story has a slow build to it that is augmented by a warm, elegant set (by Jacquelyn Scott) and lights (by Jeff Rowlings). There’s passion here, and it’s satisfying to watch Lady Gregory come into her own power as a writer as she (via Tóibín) becomes the author of the story that James (well played by Robert Sicular) never got around to telling himself.

Word for Word’s Stories by Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín continues through April 3 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $33-$58. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.

Speaking words of wisdom, Mother Mary testifies at ACT

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Seana McKenna stars as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Colm Tóibín’s solo play, Testament at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

Has any mother ever inspired so much and such varied art?

Colm Tóibín’s Testament, now at American Conservatory Theater, is another in a long line of interpretations of Mary, mother of Jesus. In is version, which started life as a Dublin play, then became a novel before being turned into a different play on Broadway last year, Toibin is interested in the humanity of Mary, a mother first and foremost, and a citizen caught up – rather unwillingly – in a dangerous rebellion.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff and starring revered Canadian actor Seana McKenna (previously seen at ACT in Napoli! and Phèdre), this Testament is steeped in grief and fear and anger. A mother watched her son carried away by a movement she didn’t really understand and was, she tells us frankly, didn’t like. The earnestness of the followers, she tells us, bored her.

In his taut script, Tóibín creates a world of tension outside Mary’s door. The cultural and political shifts that led to her son’s execution are still raging. While she copes with the loss of her son, she’s still dealing with fallout of the movement in the form of the brutes and the notetakers who plague her life and ceaselessly record (and warp) her story. There’s a real sense of the modern world in this tension in the form of government brutality, paranoia, extremity and danger. But there’s also uncertainty in who are the bad guys and who are the good guys – it doesn’t seem, at least from this perspective, that there are any good guys, and that’s a grim notion.

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McKenna exhibits a lovely grace in her performance, and that underscores everything else we see in Mary: strength, ferocity, heartbroken anguish. McKenna is just a few degrees larger than life to fill the cavernous Geary Theater with her strong voice, but she’s also recognizably human – an older woman coping as best she can, sharing her deepest fears and darkest recollections in a moment of solitude (with an audience). Set and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols surrounds McKenna with a towering skeletal structure and giant shards of what looks like shattered plastic – a harsh landscape for an agonizing story (though mostly passive the sets and lights do become active toward the 80-minute show’s end, creating the unfortunate image of an edgy dance club).

Even at its most intense – the recounting of the actual crucifixion is almost unbearable – Testament keeps a certain distance. Mary’s is a story full of emotion, but McKenna is not weeping and wailing like a Trojan woman. She’s pretty self-contained, which somehow makes her story even darker and angrier and sadder. If she’s closed off at all, it’s probably an act of self-preservation.

Testament pissed off people when it was in New York, and perhaps anybody’s interpretation of this story that doesn’t follow the standard line is subject to anger. But really, Tóibín’s take on it is compassionate and relatable and contemporary. It all comes down to a mother grieving the son whose life and work ultimately challenged and upset her. She’s in the long process of reconciling her feelings and history and the aftermath of an uprising. Amid all of that, she has people telling her that her son died for the sins of all people? The look on McKenna’s face when faced with that notion is remarkable. This Mary is not some passive portrait of motherly beneficence etched in stone or in strokes of a paintbrush. She is flesh and blood and has an extraordinary tale to tell.

[bonus video]
Probably my favorite piece of Mary-related Mary art is Patty Griffin’s song “Mary” from her 1998 Flaming Red album. For this live version, Griffin is joined by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

Colm Tóibín’s Testament continues through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415.749.2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.