Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Southern Comforts, Tir na nÓg and Orlando

An Audience Friendly Production of Southern Comforts

Karen Grassle and
Gus Edward Sarafian

Theatreworks is currently presenting the schematic two-person comedy Southern Comforts, written by playwright Kathleen Clark, in their Palo Alto Theatre.  This is a nice intimate space in which to see the December-December romance between a widow and a widower who fall in love between thunderstorms and baseball games.

Gus (Ed Sarafian) is a cantankerous old widower who is set in his ways, living in a two-story Victorian house in New Jersey.  His favorite pastimes are watching baseball, raking leaves and putting up storm windows in his home.  You get the idea that this man, who served in the armed forces during World War II, is a very self-centered person who has wanted to be left alone since the death of his wife.  He meets saucy Southern widow Amanda (Karen Grassle) when she comes to his door to drop off church offering envelopes.  As chance would have it, there is a thunderstorm and Gus grudgingly asks her to stay until the storm subsides.   He discovers that she loves baseball also.  You can see where this is going from the first scene.

Amanda sets her cap for Gus and uses her charming Southern wiles on this old man. As the old saying goes, opposites attract. Amanda is outgoing and loves to travel while Gus loves to stay at home in New Jersey ("There plenty of thing to see here without going out of the state," says Gus).

Kathleen Clark has written a clever 90-minute comedy-drama with enough good zingers to make the audience laugh.  She depicts the progress of the romance in short, television sitcom-style scenes. Each scene adds nuances to the characters and they become very real human beings by the time the play has ended.

The playwright has an ear for humor, especially when the couple has argued over some matter, and it seems that Amanda gets the best of the charming confrontation.  Gus says to Amanda after an argument, "I can't get away with too much around you - I like that - sort of like a good cup of coffee. You keep me awake"; Amanda asks about his deceased wife and why she was always unhappy and  Gus retorts, "She didn't say."

Director Joy Carlin has two excellent senior citizens playing Gus and Amanda.  Karen Grassle (best known for playing "Ma" on TV's "Little House On the Prairie" and SF Playhouse's production of The Ride Down Mt. Morgan) is captivating in her buoyant performance of Amanda.  She sports a lovely Tennessean accent and is a delight to watch as Amanda gets what she wants from gloomy Gus. Edward Sarafian (performed many times at Theatreworks, including The Elephant Man, The Cripple of Inishmaan) is an accomplished stage actor who excellently projects the manner of a grouchy old man. He has a wonderful way of delivering zingers that is delightful to hear.

The director handles the entire show well, even through the moving in of Amanda's furniture could be shortened.  She gives out an element of suspense when Gus is attempting to put in the storm window.  One can hear gasps from the audience, afraid he might fall off the roof and make this comedy-drama a tragedy.

Frank Sarmiento has designed a wonderful detailed Victorian living room set with a stairway going up to the second floor.  Cathleen Edward's costumes are excellent and they show the changes of season.

Southern Comforts plays through March 30th at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.  TheatreWorks will present Tony Kushner's Caroline, Or Change at their Mountain View Performing Arts Center opening on April 2nd and running through April 27.

Photo: David Allen

Edna O'Brien's Tir na nÓg is like a Rough-Cut Diamond

nne Darragh, Allison Jean White, Mary Pitchford and Summer Serafin
The Magic Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Edna O'Brien's Tir na nÓg, Land of Youth through March 23rd.  The two-hour presentation attempts to put her first novel, The Country Girls, onto the stage.    Director Chris Smith has enlisted the aid of Riverdance co-choreographer Jean Butler to choreograph movements with live music and Irish dances. It is as if David O. Selznick tried to put Margaret Mitchell's master work Gone with the Wind into a two-hour movie.

Novels are very hard to put on stage, especially this one, as it tells of the lives of Kate (Allison Jean White) and Baba (Summer Serafin) from children growing up in the West Country to young ladies living in Dublin. The play is more episodic with scenes rapidly flashing by.  Many of the characters are not fully brought out and some are more like caricatures.   This is particularly true of a character called Mr. Gentleman played effortlessly by Robert Parsons.  He seems to come and go with little or no reason.

Tir na nÓg is about the sexual and artistic awakening of two young girls in the 1950s, following both from a small village to a strict Catholic convent school to adulthood in Dublin. This is interspersed with lovely Irish folk melodies sung beautifully by Deborah Black.  There is beguiling dancing on the order of Riverdance thanks to the choreographer.

Artistic Director Chris Smith (who leaves the Magic Theatre after this season) has brought to the stage an excellent cast of actors to play various roles in this Irish "epic." Allison Jean White gives an engaging performance as the sensitive Kate. Summer Serafin is a ball of fire in her role as the roguish Baba.  In her adult scenes she reminds me of an Irish Bette Midler.

Cat Thompson gives genuine performances as Kate's mother and the endearing Sister Mary. Anne Darragh plays several sharply distinct characters. She is excellent as Kate and Baba's Viennese landlady in Dublin. Her scenes with Kate are heartwarming.  Robert Parson is very good sporting an excellent Irish accent as Mr. Gentleman.  Deborah Black gives a strong performance as Sister Immaculata. She also has a lyrical voice when singing Irish folk songs. Matt Foyer, Michael Louis Wells and Mary Pitchford are very effectual playing various roles; Ms. Pitchford also plays lovely Irish music on her fiddle.

Set Designer Annie Smart has designed a spartan set with a large armoire in the center that becomes an altar in church among its other uses. Cassandra Carpenter has designed excellent costumes of the period.

Tir na nÓg (Land of Youth) plays through March 23rd at the Magic Theatre, Bldg D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Photo: www.davidallenstudio.com

An Intriguing Production of Virginia Woolf's Orlando

Virginia Woolf's novels are hard to produce on stage.  However, the young, newly graduated students of the American Conservatory Theatre are presenting a stimulating production of her whimsical historical novel, adapted by Sarah Ruhl. Ruhl has taken the essence of the novel and, with the help of director Ryan Rilette, has successfully transferred Woolf's most famous novel onto the stage.  The six young actors do pleasing portrayals of various characters in the gender-bending 90-minute drama.

Orlando is a dramatic conciliation of one person's journey of selfawareness and the transformational role love plays in this process. The book was written in 1928 and it insipid praise from the critics. Critic Joseph Warren Beach said, "the point of the book seems to be that there is more than one person in each body, that each individual has, at least potentially, many selves."

Poetically minded Elizabethan nobleman Orlando is a young man through the early Stuarts, before he becomes Charles II, ambassador to the Turkish court in Constantinople.  He escapes the massacre because he is in a deep, deathlike sleep. When he wakes up, he is a woman.   She lives through the next two and half centuries, up to the roaring twenties.  However, in the form of a woman she does find love with the similarly sexually ambiguous Shelmerdine.  There is the element of homosexuality in the piece and the book has become the pride of the lesbian way of life.

On an almost barren stage at the Zeum the six actors give incredible portrayals of the various eras in which Orlando lived.  This is done by quick changes of costumes, props and narration by some of the gifted actors on each side of the stage.  They even use sound effects like those that were the mainstay of radio dramas.

Caitlin Talbot (granddaughter of actor Lyle Talbot) plays Orlando.  She has a great career ahead of her and her portrayal of the indefinite person is excellent.  Dan Morrison (A.C.T.'s Christmas Carol) gives a captivating performance in many roles.  He is outstanding in the dual roles of the Archduchess and Archduke.

Jeff Irwin (Starbuck in A.C.T.'s The Rainmaker) is charismatic as Shelmerdine. Tovah Suttle (A Christmas Carol is fascinating as the Russian Sasha.  Her accent is spot on.  Erik Saxvik  (A Christmas Carol, Candida), in a splendid costume straight out of the Warner Brothers film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, is sublime as the Virgin Queen. He looks like Bette Davis playing the role. Costumes by Callie Floor are colorful and go with each era of the play.

Orlando played through March 15th at the Zeum Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens, 4th and Howard,  San Francisco. American Conservatory Theatre will present Nikolai Gogol The Government Inspector in their main theatre opening on March 20th and running through April 20th. For tickets call 415-749-2ACT or on line at www.act-sf.org.  

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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