Ramping up the teenage angst in Crowded Fire’s Truck Stop

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Teen friendship, power and sexuality are explored in Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop receiving its American premiere from Crowded Fire Theater. Directed by Marilee Talkington, the play features an ensemble that includes (from left) Jamie Asdorian as Aisha, Jessica Lynn Carroll as Sam, Jeri Lynn Cohen in multiple roles and Chelsea Looy as Kelly. Below: Kelly (Looy, left) and Sam (Carroll, center) have been friends since they were six. Can Aisha (Asdorian), the new girl in town, find a place in their inner circle? Does she even want to? Photos by mellopix.com

The whole time I was watching Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, I was working myself into a state of anxiety imagining being the parent of a teenage girl. How do you fight the global objectification of women and instill a sense of self-worth that comes as much from intellectual, spiritual, emotional places and not just the physical and sexual, which it seems is all the world cares about if you’re watching TV or movies, reading magazines or listening to music.

My ever-increasing anxiety level appreciated the fact that this play was only about 100 minutes long, but Philpott, director Marilee Talkington and a powerful cast cram a lot to worry about into that hour and a half. Interestingly, and, it turns out, wisely, Philpott’s Australian play is performed as written with lots of references to Australian things, but without making the actors speak with Australian accents. That’s just not necessary to convey the plot or the emotional power of the story. Teenage girls in Australia aren’t all that different from teenage girls anywhere else, so even though there’s a specific Australian small town setting, there’s a universal feeling of dread that we’re not doing enough to harness the considerable energy and unlock the great potential of young women.

To be clear, in no way is Philpott lecturing us. This is a far cry from an after-school special. Rather, in a hyper-theatrical (and engaging) way, he’s showing us what girls are up against, both in their intimate worlds of friends and family and in the greater cultural landscape. His time-bending story begins with the ruptured relationship of BFFs Kelly (Chelsea Looy) and Sam (Jessica Lynn Carroll), 14-year-old parochial high school students who have been friends since first grade. The girls are in some kind of trouble, and that has led to a big fight (slapping, punching and the like) and then the silent treatment followed by visits to the women’s health clinic and a counselor.

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The course of the play essentially leads us to the cause of the rupture and it’s quite something – aggressively sexual, shocking and illegal. Before that point, though, we get to know Sam, in all her harsh intelligence, and Kelly in her tormented search for a moral center. The contrast between the two friends comes into play with the arrival of a new student, Aisha (Jamie Asdorian), recently arrived from Bangalore. Kelly is compassionate and friendly with Aisha, a more innocent 14-year-old than either Sam or Kelly. Sam taunts the new girl by calling her Curry or purposefully mispronouncing her name as Asia, yet she allows the duo to become a trio that goes by the semi-jokey name of “the Skanks.”

We see the influence of Sam and Kelly on Aisha as she begins to rebel against her mother and her family’s traditions and makes a (sweet) connection with a boy.

From the beginning of the play, there are glimpses into the interior life of Sam and Kelly as they imagine their lives reflected in pop culture – in music videos, movies and more, and those images become sizzling, beautifully executed projections on Maya Linke’s set, which comprises chain link fencing, three metal benches and a dangling wall that is actually the pavement shot through with dead tumbleweeds. It’s desolate and gorgeous at the same time.

Moving through the bumpy story of these girls and their relationships is the invaluable Jeri Lynn Cohen. She plays all the adults (and even other teens), and the great thing about her (and Philpott’s writing for the adults) is that they are not the stereotypical enemy of all things teenage fun. There’s cluelessness to be sure but also concern and genuine care, and that keeps things interesting as Sam and Kelly head into a steep learning curve based on some poor (to say the least) choices.

The performances here all crackle with vitality and the spark of Philpott’s strong script. Watching Sam and Kelly make mistakes made me ache for my imaginary daughter, the one I want to embrace her freedom and value her whole self and make good choices and learn from her bad ones. How do you give girls what they need to transition from girls to women, protecting them and letting them do what they need to do? Truck Stop is not bleak. You get a sense that Sam (who has a fascinating moment of self-awareness) and Kelly will move on with the possibility of being smarter and stronger. But you just never know. Cue the anxiety.

Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production, continues through Oct. 24 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-523-0034, Ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Sublime stories from Word for Word and Alice Munro

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Jeri Lynn Cohen is a homemaker who wants an office of her own in which to write in Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly.” Below: Howard Swain and Sheila Balter are a couple addressing the end of their lives and dealing with their past in “Dolly.” Photos by Mark Leialoha

Any celebration of Alice Munro merits attention, but when that celebration comes from Word for Word, the ever-astonishing local company that transforms short fiction into brilliant theater with complete fidelity to the original text, attention must not only be paid but also reveled in and savored.

Word for Word brought a Munro story to life in 1999 (“Friend of My Youth”), and the intervening years have brought more acclaim for the Canadian writer and a Nobel Prize for literature. Now that she is rightly revered for her masterful prose, Munro is given a full Word for Word evening in Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly,” a sort of career bookend with one story from her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and her most recent, Dear Life (2012). What’s clear is that Munro started out with a gift for clarity, precision and astonishing insight, and that gift only intensified with time.

The first story, “The Office,” feels somewhat autobiographical as Munro’s protagonist is a homemaker who also writes but is embarrassed to call herself a writer. What she really wants is an office, a writing space of her own. A man’s work outside the home has its traditional, respected place in society, but a woman’s place, the home, is ruled by children, and the though of a mother removing herself from them behind a closed door is perceived as unacceptable. So this mother, this wife, this writer (Jeri Lynn Cohen), heads downtown to find herself a room of her own.

She finds the perfect spot, formerly occupied by a chiropractor, and quickly sets up her minimal furnishings – table, typewriter, hotplate, kettle, instant coffee and mug. Her separate, simplified space turns out to be too good to be true. There’s a man, the landlord (Paul Finocchiaro), who feels no compunction about invading her space and squandering her time. He refuses to accept that she doesn’t want a touch of color in the room – a rug, new paint, a plant, a plush chair because women want those kinds of things – and turns himself into a nuisance.

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There are likely many actors who could convey the flustered frustration and inner turmoil of the protagonist, but I can’t imagine anyone better than Cohen, who manages to be heartfelt and funny and misanthropic all while conveying a desperate need to create in solitude. This is a woman operating on multiple levels. There’s the polite citizen attempting to navigate home life and an attempted professional life, and then there’s the sharp, enraged, wildly intelligent woman inside reacting to everything around her. Our view of this woman is so thorough (through Munro’s prose and Cohen’s superb performance) that humor is abundant and laughs are hearty.

And that’s an amazing thing to me. I’ve read most of Munro’s work and relished it, but I don’t recall laughing out loud often. But in both “The Office” and “Dolly,” the second story, the humor is deeply satisfying and quite audibly appreciated by the audience. It’s a laughter of recognition, and that’s always the best kind.

Both of these stories deal with the inner lives of smart, complex women dealing with seemingly ordinary problems, but Munro can take us deeper in the space of a sentence. There’s also a link between the stories when it comes to writing. In “The Office” the woman can’t quite own up to being a writer. And in “Dolly,” a man, a horse trader by profession, also works as a published poet. But for him, too, writing is a little shady. When you’re working with horses, you’re obviously, he says. But when you’re working on a poem, you just look idle.

There’s a woman writer in “Dolly” as well. After a career in the classroom, she has taken to writing books rescuing certain Canadian writers from obscurity. The teacher/writer (Sheila Balter) and the poet (Howard Swain) are in their later years. He’s in his early 80s, she’s about a decade younger, and they casually but efficiently discuss the details of their joint suicide. But then life, in the from of an old flame named Dolly (Susan Harloe) shows them they’re not quite as tapped out as they thought.

As in the first story, the actors here, under the expert direction of Joel Mullenix, revel in the kind of humor that not only elicits laughs but also deepens our connections to the characters. Balter is especially good at conveying the emotional turmoil of a woman who is surprised to find herself in the kind of upheaval she would have never expected at this stage in her life. And Harloe and Swain convey the power of a years-old connection with a mix of joy and confusion and, ultimately, nonchalance.

This set of stories delivers exactly what we’ve come to expect from both Munro and Word for Word: brilliant prose and beguiling theatricality. It’s the perfect combination.

[bonus interview]
I wrote a cover story for the San Francisco Chronicle’s 96 Hours section on Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly”. Read the feature here.

Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly” continues through April 12 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$55. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.

Twenty years on, Word for Word as brilliant as ever

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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.

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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.

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.

Four hot bodies heat up Aurora’s Body Awareness

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Body Awareness includes (from left) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell. Below: Cohen and Swain prepare for a body awareness photo session. Photos by David Allen

Drama in the small college town of Shirley, Vermont, is much like it is anywhere: small, intimate and, for the people involved, earth shattering.

Playwright Annie Baker, one of the theater world’s most acclaimed and buzzed-about writers, has a particular skill in writing about the lives of ordinary people. She’s acutely aware of the comic absurdity and the fissures of sadness and anger that clash continually and cause tremors, both minor and majorly damaging.

Baker is a humane and very funny writer, and the Bay Area is finally getting a taste of her talent in the Aurora Theatre Company’s utterly delightful production of her Body Awareness. In true Aurora form, the production gives us a meaty play and performances by a quartet of Bay Area actors that defy you to find a false moment in this up-close and intimate space.

Baker is taking a sideways look at the essential and uniquely individual nature of family. She gives us a non-traditional family and quickly throws it into crisis.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, a high school teacher and mom in her mid-50s whose son, Jared (Patrick Russell) is likely dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but he’s never been diagnosed, let alone spent time with a psychologist. Joyce was married to Jared’s dad but has taken a different turn in middle age. She’s now partnered with Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a psychology professor at the local university.

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Phyllis is one of the organizers of the university’s Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week), and to “celebrate” and create dialogue and otherwise create all that activity that empowered academics so cherish, she and her organizing crew have invited an array of guests artists, from a Palestinian dance troupe to a puppet theater, to discuss all aspects of body awareness.

One of those visitors – not one of Phyllis’ choosing – is Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who shoots nude women of all ages. Because it’s a small university, guests are housed at professors’ homes, and Frank is staying with Phyllis, Joyce and Jared. It’s the perfect storm as Jared fights his parental figures and Frank appears as an inspired artist to Joyce and a loathsome misogynist pervert to Phyllis.

Director Joy Carlin gets such delicious performances from her actors, it’s hard to know where to begin in praising them. Resnick’s ability to play reality and comedy at the same time makes her the perfect actor for a Baker script. Phyllis could so easily come off as a ridiculously pompous academic, but Resnick keeps her grounded and her intellectual foibles within the realm of (very funny) reality.

Cohen is a superb foil for Resnick. She’s part pragmatist and part yearning earth mother. When she gets it in her head that she’d like Frank to photograph her, Phyllis is so repelled she threatens to end the relationship. Cohen’s reaction as Joyce is a wonder – surprise, hurt, defiance and a yearning to make everything right without sacrificing what she thinks is right for her.

It’s wonderfully complex, all of it, and these actors handle it with ease. Swain is downright goofy in a role that could easily be crass and repellent. His Frank has warmth occasionally cooled by ego but also genuine concern fueled by compassion.

And Russell, an ACT Master of Fine Arts graduate, is astonishing as he conveys Jared’s tortured interior life. He’s a young man smart enough to know not everything is right with him but afraid to do anything with that knowledge. His flashes of anger toward his mother are jolting but understandable. This is a sensitive, highly PC household, so flashes of unrestrained anger have a certain welcome appeal.

Carlin deftly keeps the action lively for the play’s 90 minutes and never lets the rhythms fall into predictable, sitcom beats. She keeps the humor at the forefront, which only makes the real-life drama of it that much more pronounced, especially at the end, when Baker allows the notion of family to define itself.

Body Awareness traffics in jealousy and devotion, maturity and folly, pomposity and true love. In its low-key brilliance, the play serves to heighten awareness – body and otherwise.


Annie Baker’s Body Awareness continues an extended run through March 11 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

What’s up, glitter Lily?

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Taylor Mac (center) is Lily in The Lily’s Revenge at the Magic Theatre. Here in Act 1, “A Princess Musical” directed by Meredith McDonough, he is surrounded by The Marys (from left) Jason Brock, Amy Kossow and Dave End. Below: In Act 3, “A Dream Ballet,” directed and choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, Bride Love is played by Rowena Richie and her flower girls are (from left) Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Ara Glenn-Johanson. Photos by Pak Han

Sitting at the computer, hands hovering over the keyboard, I’ve been staring at the screen wondering where to begin describing and opining about The Lily’s Revenge at the Magic Theatre.

Adjectives don’t quite do it justice – much the way that a photograph of an oil painting never really captures the essence, vibrancy and presence of the original work. And the usual critical jabber – Don’t miss it! Theater event of the spring! Unforgettably unique! – seem paltry as well.

It’s not that Lily, the brainchild of writer/performer Taylor Mac, is a landmark work in Western theater canon or the reinvention of the art form as we know it. But it’s something incredibly special – a completely absorbing communal experience that turns out to be more than the sum of its abundant parts.

There’s a definite party vibe on all floors of Building D in Fort Mason Center. The Magic usually occupies space on the third floor, but for this epic, with five acts, nearly 40 actors and musicians and a running time of about 4 ½ hours, the company has spread out all over the building.

The main floor, when you enter, is where you pick up will call tickets and, if you’re in the mood, order the box meal you’ll receive between Acts 1 and 2 (price is $15 and the meal includes a sandwich, chips, a cookie, piece of fruit and a non-alcoholic beverage). You pass by what is usually a meeting room, but if you poke your head in, you’ll see it’s a ginormous dressing room for the large cast and their outsize costumes. The sounds of giggling and vocal warm-ups trickle out of the room.

As audience members gather outside the Magic’s auditorium, free red wine and coffee (usually available between Acts 1 and 2) are offered to bolster excitement and perhaps provide some added stamina. This is the start of a long haul.

When it’s time to enter the theater, Kat Wentworth as the Card Girl, bangs a gong and gives us instructions. One key thing to note: she requests that for the first two (of three) intermissions, keep all mobile technology off and interact with fellow audience members instead. During the final intermission, communication with the outside world is actively encouraged.

Once inside the theater, you’re strapped in for the ride (metaphorically speaking), and though you could conceivably jump off during an intermission, that would be a mistake – if only because the intermissions contain entertainments as varied and as fun as the show itself.

Five acts, six directors (one for the intermissions), nearly five hours and a cast larger than some operas. Those are the basic parameters. Each act is performed in a different style – musical theater, dance, verse play, film and camp-drag extravaganza – and each time you come back into the theater, you’ll find it in a different configuration (and you won’t be sitting in the same seat or near the same people). Huge kudos to the directors for their outstanding and varied work: Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt.

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In terms of the show itself, here’s a little of what you can expect. You will be dazzled by Lindsay W. Davis’ costume designs. He turns the botanical world into a glitzy hot house of roses with killer thorns, a sunflower queen with the most regal headgear this side of African royalty, a pile of dirt that becomes a gorgeous glamazon gal, an infectious disease with staggering member and so, so much more. There’s beauty, humor and dazzle in the pageantry of Davis’ marvelous creations.

You will fall under the spell of Taylor Mac, whose script is so smart, so funny and so incredibly rich with delights that you may be a little resentful to find that he’s also a consummate actor/comedian/singer. He stars as Lily, a potted plant from a home in Daly City who’s being taken to see his first play. At first, he looks like an asparagus crossed with Claudette Colbert, but then you fall for this budding thespian and love him, petals and all. Captivated by the magic of the theater, Lily works his way into the narrative (with the help of Time played by the wonderful Jeri Lynn Cohen) and becomes the hero: a plant who longs to be the groom to the beautiful bride (a silvery voiced Casi Maggio).

There’s a scene in Act 1 when Lily becomes so caught up in the rush of being a theatrical diva that he envisions an entire theater career in one glorious monologue. I immediately wanted to hit rewind and watch him do it again. But there’s no time in a 4 ½-hour show for revisiting. The show must move on.

And so it does. The villain of the piece is The Great Longing, a red velvet theatrical curtain played with bravura gusto by Mollena Williams, and her mission is to keep the world mired in nostalgia and, as we hear over and over again, “institutional narrative” aka the romantic illusion of weddings.

From act to act, we check in on Lily’s journey to woo the bride away from her human (and barely dressed) groom (Paul Baird) and his quest to free Dirt (Monique Jenkinson, also known as Fauxnique and this show’s very busy, very creative makeup designer) for reasons that are too complicated to go into.

In fact, the plot is filled with absurdity as it weaves metaphor and myth and fable in ways that would please John Waters and Joseph Campbell. But as silly as things get, there’s always depth to Mac’s writing and especially to his performance as Lily, a character you immediately love and trust. Then, when Mac sings (the delightfully tuneful score is by Rachelle Garniez and Mac), time stops, and so does the show. A ferociously captivating singer, Mac has a voice that gives you shivers, makes you smile and makes you sad – all at the same time. Magnificent.

I can honestly say that I did not look at my watch once while I was on the Lily’s Revenge ride. I was exhausted by the end – the final scene, in which Mac’s charms are stripped down to their bare essentials and as powerful as ever, had me all emotional – but I loved every minute.

This is a completely unique theatrical experience, one that the Magic should take full credit for orchestrating with panache. This could have been one giant, spangled chaotic mess, but it’s a triumph. It’s an extraordinarily wonderful event infused with utter absurdity and artistic genius.

There’s so much more to the show that I haven’t even begun to touch upon, but I’ve said enough. You should just go experience The Lily’s Revenge for yourself. It’s community theater in the truest sense – created, performed and enjoyed by an open-hearted, appreciative community that is created in a mere 4 ½ hours.


Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge continues through May 22 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.

Review: `More Stories by Tobias Wolff’

Anthony Nemirovsky is the son and Jeri Lynn Cohen is his mother in the Tobias Wolff short story “Firelight,” one of three stories in Word for Word’s More Stories by Tobias Wolff at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Photos by Clayton Lord


Word for Word remains hungry like the Wolff

The particular alchemy of Word for Word and author Tobias Wolff is undeniable. Six years ago the venerable theater company, which adapts short works of fiction without changing a word of the original text, produced three Wolff short stories, and the result was a theatrical and literary explosion.

Something about Wolff’s deep humanity and understated flair seemed to expand and blossom under the stage lights and in the capable hands of the Word for Word team.

Wolff, happily, is back on stage with Word for Word in the appropriately named More Stories by Tobias Wolff, a trio of tales from the author’s latest short story collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories ($26.95, Knopf).

Joel Mullennix directs the stories, and a five-person cast brings them to delectable life on the stage of the Magic Theatre.

Each of the stories is so different, and yet there are threads that run through them – something wistful in the narrative – that helps the evening feel of a piece and underscores the tender, complex authenticity of Wolff’s writing.

“Sanity” opens the evening with two superb performances. Michelle Pava Mills as April, a high school girl worried about her father’s latest stint in a mental hospital and the effect it will have on her second stepmother’s willingness to remain in the family. And Stephanie Hunt is Claire, the cool, collected stepmother whose roiling inner life (not to mention her past) can barely be sensed outside her cool, gray suit and wide-brimmed black hat.

The two women, after visiting the mental hospital, have a long walk back to catch the bus (people in Wolff stories are more likely to take busses than drive cars), and during that walk, Wolff plunges deep into the essence of marriage, of age contrasting youth, of need rebuffed by being needed.

It’s a fascinating, surprising story with ending that could even be considered happy.

“Down to the Bone” is the evening’s most touching story as a man (Paul Finocchiaro) in his late middle age, arrives in Miami to serve “long hours of useless witness to his mother’s dying.” With the usual Word for Word flair, we’re treated to snapshots of the mother’s youth and to the man’s relationship with his rented sports car, a red Miata (played by Mills in a sexy red vinyl dress – costumes by Laura Hazlett). We even get a guest appearance by Freud (Anthony Nemirovsky).

The man’s volatile emotional state gets a workout when he visits a funeral home run by an odd Viennese woman named Elfie (Jeri Lynn Cohen) who flirts with him and gives him beer.

What holds the piece together dramatically is Finocchiaro’s moving performance as a man anxious for his mother’s suffering to end, grieving the loss of “the great friend of his youth.”

A mother-son relationship is also at the core of “Firelight,” a Seattle-set story that illuminates the struggle of a mother (Cohen) and her young son (Nemirovsky, who also effectively plays the son as a much older man) who, despite their lack of money, led a slightly glamorous life dominated by shopping (but not buying).

This is Cohen’s moment to shine, and she is luminous (helped by the warm light of Jim Cave’s design). A woman of intelligence and spirit, this mother is also as eccentric as she is loving. One of her hobbies is shopping for apartments they can’t afford, if only to escape their dreary boarding house and its “smells disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate.” One chilly evening, after a day of pretend apartment hunting, they come upon a home near a university inhabited by a professor and his family (Finocchiaro, Hunt and Mills) who will soon be moving out.

The son is immediately taken in by the family scene – there’s a blazing fire in the fireplace, and the wife just made a batch of brownies – and changed before the evening is over. As a man, his sense of home will be forever defined by that evening and its ultimate betrayal.

Word for Word’s adaptations make these Wolff stories feel as if they were meant for the stage, and that’s probably their least likely destination. But that’s the magic of Word for Word, a company that cares about an author’s voice almost as much as the author.

More Stories by Tobias Wolff continues through Oct. 5 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$40. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.zspace.org.