‘Becky Shaw’ at SF Playhouse: An altogether extraordinary evening of theatre

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

“Becky Shaw” by Gina Gionfriddo, produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Amy Glazer. Set: Bill English. Light: Michael Oesch. Sound: Steve Schoenbeck. Costumes: Miyuki Bierlein. Properties: Greg Shillig.

Max Garrett: Brian Robert Burns. Lee Dolson: Andrew Porer. Lauren English: Becky Shaw. Lorri Holt: Susan Slater. Liz Sklar: Suzanna Slater.

Once again, SF Playhouse has brought new and exciting work to Bay area audiences. In this instance, it is the regional premiere of Gina Gionfriddo‘s Becky Shaw.

Ms. Gionfriddo is a comer, having been a Pultizer Prize finalist for Becky Shaw, won an Obie, and written for the prestigious television drama “Law & Order”. She’s got chops.

In Becky Shaw, she has accomplished something wonderful: a thoroughly character-driven comedy drama.  The Slater family (mother, daughter, first emotionally absent and then deceased father and unrelated adopted waif) are all likeable, all struggling to do right by one another and themselves. These are characters with whom we can easily identify and about whom we care. Gionfriddo has remarked that “there are no consummate villains or heroes”. She provides complex characters, authentically struggling with challenging moral issues and trying to understand themselves and each other.

The cast of SF Playhouse's production of "Becky Shaw". From l to r: Lorri Holt, Brian Robert Burns, Liz Sklar, Lee Dolson and Lauren English (seated). Photo Credit: SF Playhouse.

Father has died and the family has learned he was a keeper of secrets. Specifically, he has mismanaged the family fortune and his financial advisor, who should have recognized what was happening, was emotionally incapable due to their secretly being long term gay lovers. In spite of her very recent bereavement, Mom Susan(Lorri Holt), has taken up with a gigolo. Daughter Suzanne (Liz Sklar) is appalled, but this doesn’t stop her from getting intimate with her adopted brother Max (Brian Robert Burns). Max, burdened with a hypertrophied sense of duty and gratitude, is anxious to settle financial matters and save the family from disaster.

It is, one might say, an extreme situation. It is a set-up for dark comedy, and the laughs are many, but this is also a serious drama and although the situation is carefully constructed, it is character that moves the story along.

This family, with a father’s death, a child’s mourning, a mother’s lover and the suggestions of incest is not unlike a certain royal family of Denmark. Daughter Suzanne, like Hamlet, is dressed in exaggerated mourning and bemoans her mother’s all-too-brief grief before taking a lover. Like Hamlet, she is a bit confused about the dates. Mother Susan, like Hamlet’s stepfather, is quick to point out that fathers always do die, her husband was something of a loser, and her daughter is being melodramatic. The Hamlet references make sense. Like Shakespeare’s masterpiece, this is a play about what decent people should do when they find that the time is out of joint. How should one act when one is caught up in a family drama like this one?

Each character does their best, and each is sympathetic. Mom tries to find love. Daughter forces herself into the world by taking off on a ski vacation which results in a whirlwind courtship and marriage to Andrew Porter (Lee Dolson). Adopted son Max devotes himself to duty. But nothing seems quite right—these characters are too enmeshed in their drama to achieve the necessary perspective that will allow them to act in their best interests.

Into the mix comes Becky Shaw (Lauren English), a somewhat troubled, but smart young woman who has benefitted from effective psychotherapy and is able to break up the family patterns.

If this review sounds cerebral, it is because this is a cerebral play. It makes you think. A lot. It is full of complex ideas and complex characters. But don’t imagine it isn’t fun as well.

Becky Shaw is an altogether extraordinary evening of theatre: beautifully written, funny and touching, intellectually stimulating and laughter-provoking. It leaves you with plenty to think about. The cast is superb, the direction by Amy Glazer is clear and confident and the design is up to the usual high SF Playhouse standards.

Above all, Gina Gionfriddo is clearly a playwright who is destined to make a very distinguished contribution to our theatre. She has already begun.

Very highly recommended! Becky Shaw plays at the SF Playhouse through March 10th. For further information, click here.

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