Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Headlands
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Johnny M. Wu, Phil Wong, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart
Photo by Kevin Berne
How does one take a concept–a true crime story (though in this instance a "true" crime story–that has been done thousands of times on television and podcasts and make it fresh and theatrical? Well, if you're playwright Christopher Chen and director Pam MacKinnon, you embrace both the freedoms and limitations of theatre to create an experience that engages your audience by inviting them to travel through time and place as they–and the narrator–attempt to unravel a mystery. With terrific performances and a taut script (100 intermission-less minutes), The Headlands uses a magnificent set (by Alexander V. Nichols) with elements that rotate on Toni Rembe Theater's turntable and glide in and out of the wings–and also serve as surfaces for projected imagery (also by Alexander V. Nichols, as specified in Chen's script)–to tell the story of how Henry (Phil Wong) delves into the murder (or was it?) of his father when Henry was just a boy of 10.

Though the play has been performed once before (for LCT3 at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater, their smallest theater), San Francisco is its true home (right down to the Anchor Steam beer Henry drinks), for the story is set almost entirely in The City and is told by that very rare bird, a San Francisco native. Some decades after the death of his father (played with a sense of quiet reserve by Johnny M. Wu), Henry has become, in his words, an "amateur sleuth." Along with his "genius" girlfriend Jess (Sam Jackson), Henry dives into the mystery of his father's death, dredging up old memories and consulting with the detective (Charles Shaw Robinson) who first investigated the "burglary gone wrong" and talking with his father's former business partner, Walter (also Robinson).

Chen's text jumps back and forth in time, as young Henry "witnesses" the goings-on in his house, slowly piecing together a theory of what really went down. What secrets did his father keep from his family? What was his father staring at out the window that day not long before his death? After all, Henry says, "we lived in the Sunset district–so there wasn't much to look at." Henry suspects the official report isn't right, but how does he reconcile the "things we know in our gut, but push down"?

The American Conservatory Theater cast is nicely balanced and, under MacKinnon's sure directorial hand, wring the most out of their performances. As Henry's mother Leena in old age (the younger Leena is played by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro brings a delightfully brittle edge to her performance. Jess and Henry have a lovely chemistry, especially when they argue: there is a hesitancy in their speech patterns that makes their spats feel incredibly genuine. As Tom, a character who enters the scene rather late in Henry's investigations, Jomar Tagatac continues to cement his role as one of the Bay Area's top character actors. His energy and focus are unmatched, and there is a moment when he plays a younger version of his character, and it feels almost as if he sheds a couple of decades from Tom's age with just a slight shift in his tone of voice and a loosening of his physical movements.

Although Chen leaves us hanging a bit with the resolution of his story–no tidily-tied bows here–the doubts he leaves us with seem to make this fictional "true crime" story feel as authentic as anything that airs on "Dateline" or "20/20."

The Headlands runs through March 5, 2023, at American Conservatory Theater's Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$110. For tickets and information, please visit