Playwright Claire Chafee created a stir in the Bay Area theater world in 1993 when her "Why We Have a Body" bowed at San Francisco's Magic Theatre and was extended for six months. She has since written four more plays, the most recent of which is having its world premiere with San Francisco's Encore Theatre Company. Chafee has said this new play, "Darwin's Finches," is to be the first of a quasi-autobiographical trilogy roughly based on her family, which has been impacted by her older brother's schizophrenia.
In "Darwin's Finches," two adult sisters, both lesbians, have successful careers in New York City. Sophie (Amy Resnick) is a scholar, author and lecturer; GiGi (Kate Sheehan) is a second-grade teacher. Their brother, Willit (Gabriel Carter), is a schizophrenic who lives somewhere outside of the city and requires a 24-hour attendant, Bob (Warren Keith). Their father is dead, their mother on a world cruise.
Each sister must learn to overcome her anger at Willit (and perhaps their parents) and to forgive him for things that happened when they were growing up, but the viewer can only infer that such things happened because the script provides no solid evidence. In fact, the script provides little information that would provide insight into the present situation. Likewise, the ending, when each sister does forgive Willit in her own way, seems rushed and unsubstantiated. And because the script provides such scant information about each character, it's hard to care about them.
Nevertheless, the play, especially its language -- though sometimes dense -- holds one's attention. Much of the credit goes to director Lisa Steindler and her excellent cast. Carter is especially impressive in conveying Willit's swift mood changes, fixations and non sequiturs yet retaining the young man's essential dignity. Resnick, a strongly focused actor who's one of the gems of Bay Area theater, is a likable Sophie, a woman who has enjoyed a measure of success but who is still carrying around a lot of anger. The anger surfaces during a six-day book promotion tour in France, where she almost immediately begins an affair with her translator, Eve (an engaging Isabelle Ortega). A romantic moment on the beach is shattered when Sophie lashes out at people staring at them. Later, she becomes angry with her sister upon learning that GiGi has made peace with Willit, yet shortly thereafter -- a weakness of the script -- she comes to her own accord with him.
Keith is the epitome of patience and successfully managed anger as Bob, Willit's attendant. Rather than rile Willit, he tends to go along with whatever he says, yet he also tries to keep the young man focused. He also understands how important it is to honor Willit's request to see his sisters. Chafee hasn't developed GiGi's character as well as one would hope, yet Sheehan clearly shows that she's uptight and guarded with adults, yet seemingly comfortable with her second-grade students.
James Faerron's set design has well-defined yet flexible playing areas on the small stage, complemented by Christopher Studley's lights, Drew Yerys' sound and Jocelyn Leiser's costumes. Encore reportedly didn't have a script four weeks before rehearsals began, so presumably there wasn't enough time to hone it more carefully. One hopes that happens during or after this production because Chafee clearly has the makings of a solid play, but it does need more work. Even as it is, however, it's intriguing.
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