Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Two From the City by the Bay

American Premier of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink

The American Conservatory Theater scored a major coup when it secured the rights for the American premier of Tom Stoppard's 1995 play Indian Ink. The play was a hit in London's West End with Felicity Kendell, Margaret Tizack and Art Malik. It had been scheduled for The Lincoln Center, but negotiations fell through. Carey Perloff, Artistic Director for ACT, managed to convince Mr. Stoppard to have his play premier here. I am glad that he did.

This is a lovely play. It creatively juggles a number of themes and interlocking stories in two separate, parallel time frames. These time frames overlap to a far greater degree then in his "Arcadia".

At closed to three hours, it is hardly a bullet streaking through time. It is more like an eccentric browser meandering though a century of two continents, bursting bubbles and painting a complex picture of a life as seen through an academic mirror.

The story is about the famous fictional poet Flora Crewe. She is a left of center artist who comes to India with a lust for life and love. She finally arrives in India in the 30s when India is in the beginning stages of revolt against British colonial rule.

Flora meets and has a brief relationship with Indiana painter Nirad Das who paints a couple of pictures of her. There is a parallel tale unfolding at the same time. Academic author Eldon Pike is working in the 1980s on a biography of the poet. Pike, working from letters written by Crewe and working with Crewe's sister, attempted to piece together the life of the mysterious poet. These two stories develop at the same time and it is fascinating to watch them unfold. It is also interesting to see how far awry the obvious clues can take the modern researcher.

Nirad Das, the painter, is played by the original in the London cast, Art Malik. Susan Gibney plays the poet. These two make an excellent couple as their unfolding relationship is more like a chess game than a love affair. Ms. Gibney is a bright, breezily candid and consciously alluring Flora while Mailik is intensely focused, unfailingly polite and increasingly fascinated by her.

Jean Stapleton plays the sister in the 80s. No doubt she had the most clever lines ("I'm not gaga, I'm only old") and she does have some nicely rendered emotional moments. However during the first act, she was very hard to hear, with most of her scenes taking place at the rear of the stage.

The physical production was superb. The summery costumes were attractive and apt for both periods. The lighting director bathes the scenes in bright sunshine and moody, dappled moonbeams. Loy Arcenas's set makes good use of flown in columns and the diaphanous bedroom for Fora was lovely.

Indian Ink runs through March 21.

Inherit the Wind Powerful

The Willows Theatre of Contra Costa County, one of the Bay's areas fastest growing Regional Theaters, opened their 99-00 season with the exciting and provocative drama Inherit the Wind. The drama, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, has lost none of its punch in the 45 years since it was written. The play is a more pointed indictment to today's social McCarthyism where political foes at both ends of the seesaw fight for the sort of freedom of thought that reflects only their own views.

The play is a dramatic evaluation of the famed Scopes trial that occurred in the little town of Dayton, Tennessee in the mid 20's. After seeing the play it really seemed ridiculous that an entire nation could have aroused and flung into two bitter camps because a very small potatoes of a public teacher chose to state the theory of evolution in his classroom. That this teaching violated a statute of Tennessee was then and curiously is now true. What is of importance is that from that little town, whipped into fervor by the presence of William Jennings Bryan on the side of orthodox interpretations of the Bible, and Clarence Darrow, on the side of enlightenment an science, came a note of hope, that man could think of himself without censure or impoundment.

The splendid theatrical presentation of the battle in the second act was powerfully arrived at by the precise writing of the playwrights. It has received determined and affectionate direction from Richard Elliott. Mr. Elliott is the new artistic director of the company and he has a great season ahead of him.

This play has the feel of a musical. The characters move to a rhythm and pace that gives you a sense of a musical without the song and dance. The main event comes in the second act when we see this pair of American gods wage one final battle. It becomes a full contact chess game with the two old foxes trying to out fox each other.

Two of the Bay Area's most respected actors play the two lawyers battling against each other. John Higgens plays the Clarence Darrow character. His interpretation of the role that is, frankly, Darrow to a 'T' is a wonder of a performance, a full bodied and magnificent performance which stirs from the moment of silent, shuffling, round shouldered entry onto the stage.

Edward Saraflian plays the William Jennings Bryan character and he is brilliant. Mr. Saraflian brings to the role a needful sonorous note, the pious humility of the professional religious laymen, spreading himself in an area where only he is saint and all adversaries are labeled sinful; he gloats over and mocks his foes. When these two reach the moment of clinch in the play, the production becomes a thrilling event.

Val Hendrickson is also amazing as the Baltimore reporter, Hornbeck. He gets a lot of great lines and he makes the character very engaging. He is not only thoroughly believable as the writer, but also has the look of someone straight out of the 20s.

Set designer Jean Francis Revon has used just about every inch of the Willow's stage to create not only the town's main street and courthouse, but also a mood that enhances the productions. The director has also put "townspeople in the audience" to cheer their favorite side. In the second act, the director used 8 members of the audience to complete his 12 all male members of the jury.

This is a great start for this company's 99-00 season. The next production is Charles Strouse's Broadway hit "Applause" to be followed by "Funny Girl," Breaking Legs," "Dreamgirls" and "Nuncrackers".

Inherit the Wind runs through April 3rd.

- Richard Connema

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