It’s About Time

When the San Francisco Playhouse moved into its cushy new digs at the former Post Street Theatre, its new main stage was clearly more capacious than its old one. But it was leaving behind not one stage but two at its erstwhile home above the Shelton Theatre, and one interesting question was what would become of the company’s Sandbox Series of small-scale world premieres on its second stage. One show in the series, Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer, was originally scheduled for shortly after the move, but was quietly shelved.

Keith Burkland, Molly Noble and Carlye Pollack in Inevitable. Photo by Lauren English.

Well, the new works series is not only continuing, but for now it’s going on exactly where it always has, in the former SF Playhouse Stage 2 that’s now known as the Un-Scripted Theater, home to the company of the same name that’s long done its improv shows there. The latest Sandbox premiere very much keeps things in the SF Playhouse family. Inevitable is written by Jordan Puckett, the company’s literary manager, who also designs the lighting for a number of its shows, including this one. The director is Lauren English, best known as a longtime actor with the company and the daughter of its artistic director, Bill English. She’s also the theater’s casting and education director.

It’s clear from the beginning of Inevitable that there’s something odd going on. Dozens of clocks hang from the ceiling, all set to different times, and white post-its line the black walls. There’s a small platform in the center of Nicole Braucher’s set with a small kitchen table, and only when the actors step onto that platform does it seem that they exist in the present. At the table Evelyn (Molly Noble) is enjoying a game with her loving husband Carl (Keith Burkland) in which the two of them have to list the things that make them smile, timing themselves. But Evelyn is distracted, staring off into space, and understandably so. Carlye Pollack is running around the stage as a young girl, humming and singing to herself and talking to Evelyn while staying outside the scene. This seems to be Evelyn’s daughter, but a long time ago, and from time to time she morphs into Evelyn’s harsh, German-accented mother. So while Evelyn is sitting there, she’s also drifting, traveling in time, but seemingly involuntarily. These voices keep nagging at her, but what do they want?

Evelyn has good reason to be preoccupied. As soon as Carl asks her what the doctor said, you know the news can’t possibly be good, no matter what she tells her husband. She becomes obsessed with time—specifically with trying to stop time to keep her illness from getting worse. So Puckett makes practically everything in the play about time too. Evy wears a watch around her neck that her mother gave her, and Carl proposed to her using his grandfather’s pocket watch instead of a ring. Even the neighbor’s barking dog is named Chronos.

Some of the dialogue feels forced for poignancy, such as an anecdote about a movie star who got in an accident, but the bookish banter between Carl and Evy, both teachers, is awfully charming. She asks how one could achieve immortality, feigning nonchalance, and he holds forth with fascinating factoids about jellyfish. And there are these tantalizing fragments where Evelyn’s husband and daughter talk about her like she’s not there, or at least not responding. Are there flash-forwards going on, along with the flashbacks, or is the whole space of the play not what it appears to be?

Evelyn has a strained relationship with her daughter, Rene, that mirrors her memories of her own forbidding mother, played by Pollack with a chilly demeanor and nary a kind word to offer. The mother mentions at one point that her own mother was a cruel woman, so we seem to have a textbook cycle of abuse here, or at least of emotional neglect. But everything we’re told about Evelyn’s mothering seems at odds with her playful and gently loving relationship with her husband. Her emotional unavailability is oddly specific to her daughter, so it seems not at all that she has any trouble expressing affection or approval in general, only in her role as a mother.

At less than an hour, the play still feels underdeveloped. While the ending is quite effective, with a startling transformation by Molly Noble as Evelyn, it leaves us with more questions than answers about what of the play (if any of it) was supposed to be actually happening. But it’s often genuinely touching, particularly in the palpable bond between Burkland’s Carl and Noble’s Evy, and much of their dialogue is clever and sweet. A scene in which the ever-squabbling mother and daughter list their resentments against each other is particularly powerful. While the hand of the playwright pushing the theme is often visible, it’s these human touches that drive the point home that no time is wasted.

Through March 23
San Francisco Playhouse
Un-Scripted Theater
533 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #22 of 2013, attended March 2.

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