Review: ‘Headlands’ at A.C.T. (****)

(L to R) Henry (Phil Wong), Tom (Jomar Tagatac), and Leena (Erin Mai-Ling Stuart) share a complex familiy relationship full of secrets, love, and tragedy in A.C.T.’s production of Christopher Chen’s “Headlands.”
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Henry (Phil Wong) is a charming, easily recognizable San Francisco type: A gently nerdy tech guy who grew up with his Chinese parents in San Francisco’s Sunset District. He is close to his Mom (Erin Mai-Ling Stuart)) and happy with his ultra-sophisticated girlfriend, Jess (Sam Jackson). He introduces himself directly to the audience and confides that his hobby is amateur detecting, and he likes to study unsolved murder cases from the files of the San Francisco Police Department. He’s obsessed with one particular murder which took place decades ago. The victim just happened to be his father. That is the first unexpected twist in this fascinating play and it will be the last spoiler in this review.

Phil Wong as Henry is a fine and versatile actor who captures and holds our attention as our guide through the “Headlands,” and the rest of the outstanding ensemble cast rise to the same high standard. As his girlfriend, Jess, Sam Jackson delivers another fine performance to match her recent stellar work in “Two Trains Running” at Marin Theatre Company. Henry’s mother Leena is played by Erin Mai-Ling Stuart in a performance that unfolds like a flower, revealing more and more petals as the story progresses.

As Henry plays detective and digs more and more deeply into his family past to the point of confronting the police officer who worked on the case and interviewing his father’s former business partner, the story twists and turns in many surprising directions.

The idea of “Headlands” becomes richer and richer as a metaphor. There is the literal “Headlands” in Marin County where father and son bond with each other, but also the “Headlands” as a higher point of perspective, and also the “Headlands” of over-thinking that have seduced Henry into what may well be an unhealthy obsession. All of this fascinates.

More and more family secrets are uncovered and ultimately converge upon the mysterious character of Tom, portrayed by the ever-amazing Jomar Tagatac, who is the sort of actor that stands out in an entire generation of actors. I can’t say much without revealing spoilers, but I will say that when Tagatac takes the stage as Tom, the already riveting stakes for the characters are raised even higher.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, as an older version of Henry’s Mom and also as  a family friend, is excellent. So is Johnny M. Wu, as Henry’s unfortunate father, George, and Charles Shaw Robinson in the roles of the unnamed police detective and Henry’s business partner, Walter.

All the design elements serve the play well, especially the costume designs by Wen-Ling Liao whose clothes fit each character to perfection.

Director Pam MacKinnon has woven all these elements together into an impressively integrated whole.

In short: “Headlands” delivers something special.

“Headlands” continues at A.C.T. through March 5th at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe theater. For further information, click here.

Rating: **** (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“Headlands,” by Christopher Chen. Produced by A.C.T. Director: Pam Mackinnon. Costume Design: Lydia Tanji. Lighting Design: Wen-Ling Liag. Sound Design: Lea Gelpe. Byron Au Young: Original music. Dramaturg: Jay Meads. Casting: Katie Craddock & Janet Foster, CSA. Intimacy: Natalie Greene.


Pat/Older Leena: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Jess: Sam Jackson. Walter/Detective: Charles Shaw Robinson. Leena: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. Tom: Jomar Togatac. Henry: Phil Wong. Johnny M. Wu: George.


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