Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Red Winged Blackbird
Sparkle Plenty Productions
Review by Patrick Thomas

Aaron Wilton, Adam Magill, and Rinabeth Apostol
Photo by Jay Yamada
There is dread and foreboding aplenty in the world premiere production of Red Winged Blackbird by first-time playwright Alyosha Zim, a heartbreaking story of familial connections gone bad–for reasons emotional, relational and genetic. While there seems to be plenty of love within the Zim family, the horrors of inherited illness hang over the proceedings like the sword of Damocles: ever-present, ever-threatening, creating a miasma of stress through which the Zims–patriarch Sidney (the ever-amazing Julian Lopez-Morillas), matriarch Eva (Danielle Levin in an intensely demanding role that she plays with undeniable grace and power), and sons Alyosha (Aaron Wilton) and Joshua (Adam Magill)–struggle to find their way.

Switching back and forth between a New York City suburb in the late 1960s and a cabin in Colorado in 1985, director Nancy Carlin stages the action so expertly that we are never lost in time as Zim's story unfolds: a tale of two brothers who take very different paths in life, yet somehow always end up together.

Alyosha, the older brother, follows a route most pleasing to his father (medical school), while Joshua drops out of Harvard to trod a spiritual path that leads him to India to study with Meher Baba (who coined the aphorism "don't worry, be happy") before ultimately settling in as a committed Buddhist. Sidney considers his search to be a "spiritual treasure hunt," but Joshua counters that "all religions had gifts for me."

Hovering over all this familial tsuris are three presences. One of these, Rinpoche (Ogie Zulueta), serves as an embodiment of the Eastern philosophies embraced by Joshua, and occasionally offers bits of Buddhist wisdom, like "When ordinary is awakened, it becomes extraordinary." The second dominating presence in the lives of the Zim boys is mother Eva (Danielle Levin), who suffers from Huntington's Disease, a debilitating illness that causes a wide range of symptoms, none of them pleasant: depression, dementia, and uncontrolled movements that can seem like a strange form of dance. She is played with an angry ferocity by Levin, who inhabits a character much older than she with such intensity and commitment that even without old-age makeup or gray hair dye she is never less than believable as a woman of 50-70+. It's a startling performance that is both hard to watch and hard to look away from.

But it is the third presence that is most ominous: Huntington's disease itself. Huntington's is an autosomal dominant inherited disorder: if one of your parents has it, you have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the defective gene. It is this coin flip possibility that weighs most heavily on the mind of younger brother Joshua. Despite being in a loving relationship with the supportive Padma (Rinabeth Apostol), Joshua carries the weight of what might befall him as though he were Atlas, forced to carry the world on his shoulders. Magill and, especially, Apostol move almost like dancers as they swirl and sway and entwine themselves around each other–in ways that almost mimic the herky-jerky movements of mostly bedridden Eva.

Carlin has assembled a wonderful cast. Lopez-Morillas, a 40-year veteran of Bay Area stages, is perfection as a Polish immigrant with decades of trials and labor behind him, all weathered in the hope his sons will be a little better off. As his son Joshua, Magill seems to be ever on the edge of a breakdown of some sort, as though he must maintain his pessimism in order to prepare for the disappointment he senses is his fate. It feels a bit like some of the reasoning behind why a glass is broken at a Jewish wedding: to remember that even in moments of joy, the world is full of pain and loss and in need of healing.

Joshua's healing–for this is most certainly Joshua's play–will come in an unlikely fashion, but one that seems, unfortunately, unjustified by what has transpired before. (At least in terms of Alyosha's participation in it.) Yet the action Joshua takes at the play's conclusion seems as inevitable as a coin coming up either heads or tails.

Red Winged Blackbird runs through March 20, 2022, in the Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA. Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets (general admission) are $20, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets please visit