Magic Theatre in San Francisco kicked off their season last night with a revival, and plenty of good old fashioned spunk.
When Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body premiered here in 1993, Nirvana was topping the charts. And while grunge may be out now (witness: Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, and Autotune), the themes explored in this play — sexual identity, finding your place in the world, love — resonate just as strongly today. It’s testament to the strength of the material which includes one quotable quote after another. I might have filled up my notepad on this evening more completely than ever before.
It all starts with the lesbian brain (memory/lust/hammering doubt) don’t you know. We learn that it’s bigger because it stores more of the past than a straight brain. Why the emphasis on memories? Because lesbians most certainly have no future.
From there we’re off to the races! First stop: holding up 7-11s. Seems like Mary (Maggie Mason) has a thing about corner store misdemeanors, heroes and celebrity nightmares (Sean Connery!). She bounces in and out of prison, works as a manic traffic guide, and tries to find some sliver of normalcy in a family that seems just this side of a sexual identity implosion. Her older sister Lili (Lauren English) soon has her sights on the recently separated Renee (Rebecca Dines), a paleontologist- or that could be a neurophysicist trapped in a child’s body. Meanwhile, Mom (Lorri Holt), a Scarlatti romantic, travels jungles, exploring the world, trying to catch her own life before it lives without her.
Love eventually conquers all – “I am with a woman!” But not before there is some confusion about who (if anyone) is the man. Or is there two men? And wouldn’t that still be considered gay, if there was?
“Some of us have to look for our lives.”
There are plenty of laughs in Why We Have a Body. It’s an intelligent comedy, anything but slapstick. Chafee uses flashbacks and plenty of time shifting to tell her story, which can make for a bit of a challenge to coherence, but the pay-off is in the depth of the richly drawn characters. There is also a lifetime supply of metaphors- some of which probably just grazed my hairs. Fishing, for example, becomes somewhat more interesting when you can catch a perturbed Virginia Woolf or Ophelia.
Acting is typical Magic: top drawer. Delivery by all four of these women — English, Dines, Holt, Mason — is strong, and occasionally even electric (but not quite Brothers Size). Confidence is not in short supply in these performances, and try as we might, we can’t help but be absorbed by their intrepid determination.
The set is a wide expanse of black and white contrast. There is no intermission and there are no set changes. Instead the actors whisk along furniture, a lounger, tables, a canoe, and even a row of airplane seats as they enter and exit the stage.
“You gotta just enjoy the human dilemma, Lily. That’s why it’s there.”
Reactions to this play may vary. Its success is undeniable – it played to raves in San Francisco in 1993 and then off-broadway. There are times that it felt, at least to this viewer, more like a series of episodic statements told with artistic and authentic flare, then it did a work of entertainment with an emotional arc, and resonating climax. Then again, that might be partly the idea; that there are no easy ways out, and that the search for sexual identity and belonging are messy things many of us would otherwise prefer to sweep under the rug.
Why We Have a Body
by Claire Chafee
3.5 out of 5 stars (Good)
Magic Theatre, San Francisco
Directed by Katie Pearl
Starring Rebecca Dines, Lauren English, Lorri Holt, Maggie Mason
Revival/August 31 – October 2