AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228
Reviewed by Judy Richter

At the heart of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink" is a cross-cultural relationship between an English poet and an Indian artist.

Presented by American Conservatory Theater under the direction of artistic director Carey Perloff, it's an often fascinating story told in both the 1930s and the 1980s.

The poet is Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), who is visiting India in 1930. The artist is Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), who meets her at a social event and shyly presents her with a quick sketch that he has made of her. Before long, he is painting her portrait while she writes a poem on the veranda of her lodgings.

She relates her most of her experiences through letters to her sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), in England. Fifty years later, Eleanor is sharing those letters with Flora's biographer, Eldon Pike (Anthony Fusco). Later, Eleanor shares more information with Nirad's son, Anish Das (Pej Vahdat), who in turn shares other information with her.

An undercurrent to Flora's experiences in India is British control of the country. Hence, she meets other English people, such as a minor official, David Durance (Philip Mills), whose attraction to her is not mutual except for friendship.

The action seamlessly moves between time periods thanks to Perloff's fluid staging and the all-purpose set by Neil Patel. Sometimes exquisite lighting by Robert Wierzel helps to establish time, place and mood. Costumes by Candice Donnelly, along with music and sound by Dan Moses Schreier, also enhance the production.

Running almost three hours, the intriguing two-act play offers plenty of food for thought. The political aspects of how Indians relate to the British colonialists may be somewhat unfamiliar to American audiences, but the program offers helpful background on both the politics and Indian culture.

The production features almost consistently excellent acting, especially by Meaney as Flora and Maxwell as Eleanor, but the accents of many of the Indian characters are often difficult to understand. Bamji as the artist has a distracting habit of shifting from foot to foot.

ACT staged the American premiere of "Indian Ink" in 1999. Playwright Stoppard has since revised it in collaboration with Perloff, who recently directed it in New York City.

I didn't see the 1999 production, so I can't make comparisons. However, the play bears some structural similarities to Stoppard's "Arcadia," which ACT successfully staged in 1995 and 2013. "Arcadia" works better if only because the dialogue is more understandable and the through-line smoother.

Still, the overall play and production of "Indian Ink" are well done.

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