One nation under dog

Pub date October 31, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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In Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play, the setting is a vast dirt hole — what the piece calls “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History.” You could say it’s still the operative landscape in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Topdog/Underdog, which also takes as a central motif The America Play’s image of a black man dressed as an arcade Abraham Lincoln (there for patrons to shoot in a continual reenactment of the assassination in Ford’s Theatre). Parks now grounds it in a more ostensibly realistic plotline Linc-ing two African American brothers to a deep and sordid past they only partially and fleetingly understand. The hole of history here consists of the squalid apartment shared by Lincoln (Ian Walker) and Booth (David Westley Skillman), named by their father as “some idea of a joke.”
In Parks’s telling, the joke is loaded. The layering of history, it suggests, turns Booth’s inner-city digs downright archaeological. It blends — in subtle and intricate ways — the brothers’ troubled childhood, a history of racism and endemic poverty, and a ruthless culture suffused with fantasies of death and easy money.
Second Wind’s production, ably helmed by director Virginia Reed, is the first one locally since the touring Broadway version came through town. It’s great not only to have the opportunity to see this rich and dramatically powerful work performed again but to see a small company do this demanding piece such justice. (If justice is a word one can draw anywhere near the world of Linc and Booth.) The actors establish an engaging rapport onstage. Skillman is sharp and just vaguely menacing as younger brother Booth, jumpy and less certain than his big brother despite his obsessive ambition to be the three-card monte hustler his now disillusioned brother once was. Walker’s Linc, meanwhile, is a finely tuned combination of resignation, restraint, and irrepressible pride. He first appears in whiteface, wearing the president’s getup, which gives him a steady paycheck and time to think; when his startled kid brother trains a real gun on him, we have a tableau that sets the whole history ball rolling.
True, opening night saw the performances, especially Walker’s, fluctuating slightly in intensity, focus, and rhythm, but that’s only to say an excellent cast will likely prove even stronger as the run continues.
Bay Area playwright Brad Erickson’s new play, The War at Home, comes stitched together with song — religious hymns sung by a cast whose effortless harmonies belie the contested provenance of the play’s allegiances and convictions. It’s an ironic and rhythmically effective counterpoint to the disunion tackled by Erickson’s smart and well-crafted story, which begins with the lovely-sounding but nonetheless physically strained concord of a group portrait around the piano.
Jason (a nicely understated Peter Matthews) is a young gay playwright from the Big Apple who returns home to Charleston, SC, where his father, Bill (Alex Ross), is a popular Baptist minister, to put on a play lambasting the Baptist Church for its bigoted opposition to gay marriage and demonization of homosexuality. As the inevitable uproar gets under way — with his good-natured, well-meaning dad (played with wonderfully convincing sincerity by Ross) caught between his son and his strident, militant church assistant, Danny (Patrick MacKellan) — Jason’s renewed contact with his old lover Reese (Jason Jeremy) raises some hell of its own for him.
Pastor Bill has grown the congregation successfully over the years into a thriving community. Early in the play, he’s overlooking the floor plans for the church’s new Christian Life Center facility (which includes an elaborate gym confoundingly absent showers, he notices). But the growth of the church and Bill’s success as a pastor have come at a price — his own passive complicity in the purging over the years of progressive church leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention (as a Christian who had protested the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights, Bill finds his passivity amounts to a significant compromise). Now his son’s play and life become the catalyst for a confrontation with the right-wing leadership that threatens to end his career as well as break up his marriage to Jason’s serenely oblivious mother (a bottomless well of denial played with perfectly pitched charm by Adrienne Krug).
Having recently married his NYC partner in a legal ceremony in Boston, Jason becomes panicked over his infidelity with Reese, made troubling here by the thought that he may be living up to the hateful stereotypes of the Christian Right and stoking the facile certainties of their intolerant, authoritarian worldview (which to his father’s chagrin Jason labels — with youthful impetuosity perhaps but hardly without cause — “fascist”).
It’s part of the strength of Erickson’s play that it eschews easy answers or stereotypes. Nevertheless, Danny and, to a lesser extent, Reese remain less developed characters than Jason and his parents, whose interactions are some of the play’s most convincing and resonant. Director John Dixon, meanwhile, who shrewdly avoids stereotypes himself, as well as cheap laughs, garners strong performances from a very solid cast. SFBG
Through Nov. 18
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason, SF
(415) 820-1460
Through Nov. 11
Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF
(415) 861-8972