Tree touched my soul

Tree_180Last night I was moved by theater in a way that I rarely am. Don’t get me wrong—I often appreciate and enjoy plays that I see, but my experience at S.F. Playhouse hit me right in the heart.

Playwright Julie Hébert said about Tree, “I set out to write a play about race and ended up writing a play about family.”

Directed by Jon Tracy, Tree opens with Didi Marcantel, a white Southern woman played by Susi Damilano, reading letters written by her recently deceased father, revealing a man she never knew. Her quest to find out who her dad was before he became her dad is the event that sparks the action of the play. When she pays the Price household a visit, she has no idea what is in store or what she is stirring up. Lost love, family ties, and race relations all play a part in this emotional drama that also has its share of humor.

The excellent cast included Carl Lumbly, who was one of my daughter’s favorite characters on the show “Alias,” when it was on many years ago (and who also frequents my local Peet’s coffee shop).

Jess Price
Cathleen Riddley plays Jessalyn Price in S.F. Playhouse’s production of Tree.

But as good as the other three players were, it was Cathleen Riddley who stole the show as Jessalyn Price, a woman whose family doesn’t know her complicated past. Riddly smoothly and believably transitions from the sweet grandmother to her foul-mouthed abusive alter ego and back again—a risky and difficult part to pull off. In less experienced hands, the character of Jess, who constantly slips in and out of dementia, could not have carried the dramatic center of the play.

The stage is strewn with paper to represent the letters between Jess and Ray, and cardboard boxes tied up in string not only fill the house but also hang from the ceiling and surround the house as well—boxes hiding objects that are tightly wrapped in foil and paper and plastic wrap. Much becomes unwrapped and unraveled during the play, but out of that, new ties are established.

I don’t know if it was because I saw Tree on its first preview night or if it was supposed to be that way, but the lighting seemed off. (I was actually worried that one of the actors might slip on one of the many pages because it was so dark.) And the soundtrack that accompanied it was only partially successful. But these are details that did not at all diminish the production as a whole.

It was a masterful piece of theater. I highly recommend it.

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