Yesterday Came Suddenly

Scott Herman’s play Octopus’s Garden doesn’t actually have anything to do with octopi, nor gardens, nor even the Beatles. Now being given its world premiere by San Francisco’s PianoFight, the Seattle-based playwright’s first full-length play is instead a funny and bittersweet portrait of a young lesbian couple raising their eight-year-old daughter.

Gabrielle Patacsil, Nandi Drayton and Leah Shesky in Octopus’s Garden. Photo by Andy Strong.

The play opens with a visit from Grant, their daughter Anna’s biological father. Grant is the former roommate and best friend of Lilly, the biological mother. They were never romantically involved, as they’re both gay; he just acted as the donor when Lilly and her partner Claire wanted to have a baby. Just the same, Claire never liked Grant and doesn’t want him in their lives, saying it would just make things more confusing for Anna when they finally get to the discussion about exactly how it is that she has two mommies. He hasn’t seen or heard from them since they moved from New York City to Boulder, Colorado, nine years ago, and he’s never met Anna. He just drove out to see them as soon as he finally got a Christmas card from them.

The play goes back in time, each scene taking place before the last one we saw. We’re told pretty much exactly what happened by the end of the first scene, and then we go back and see the things we’ve already heard about, so there’s not much suspense about what’s going to happen. The scenes that follow deepen our appreciation of the characters, but with perhaps one notable exception (depending on what you assumed), they don’t particularly change our understanding of what happened. However, the structure does raise curiosity about how the story is going to be told—whether we’ll keep going backward or eventually catch back up to the present and see what happens after the first scene.

There is some initial confusion in the second act about whether we are indeed still headed backward or forward in time, because there are some references in the scenes that could be interpreted either way, but it’s not so much of a problem because those particular scenes work fine either way.

Director Devin McNulty gives the play a bright and largely well-paced staging. The set looks like a studio apartment, with a double bed, a loveseat, and a small dinner table set for four, although the furnishings are used in separate scenes and may be in different rooms in the world of the play. Costumer Elyse Wilford accentuates the casual with comfy-looking house clothes. In a particularly clever touch, all the scene-changing music is other tracks from the Beatles’ Abbey Road (the album from which “Octopus’s Garden” hails), some of the blackouts lasting longer than strictly necessary to let the song play a little longer while members of the audience sing along with the familiar ditties under their breath. (When the tiny songlet “Her Majesty” started up at the end of a scene, I thought, “Boy, this had better be a short scene change.”)

The backwards storytelling is particularly effective in unfolding layers of character. Leah Shesky’s Claire seems like a controlling and brittle snob when talking to Lilly about Grant, and she’s hilariously condescending to him over dinner, so it’s a relief to see how warm, playful, and loving she is with Lilly and Anna when it’s just them. We also get a richer view of Lilly over time that shows she isn’t nearly as passive as the initial scenes might lead us to believe—that the couple’s vegetarianism, for instance, was totally her influence. (Anna, as a growing girl, gets to have meatballs: “No, no, we’re still veg, and Anna will be too when she gets older,” Lilly explains.) After seeing how vulnerable Grant is and how gently guarded Lilly is after their long separation, it’s delightful to watch them goofing around together back in the old days, if also bittersweet because of the rough times ahead.

Gabrielle Patacsil is bright and playful as Lilly, and Andrew-Hansen Strong is charming and funny as Grant, though he’s also foot-shufflingly nervous in the first act. He’s a musician, long reconciled to a simple bohemian life, and we occasionally hear him strumming his acoustic guitar and singing (including the title song). As Claire puts it, “I know he’s your friend, but he’s kind of a bum.”

Whether or not they were right to leave Grant behind, Lilly and Claire clearly did a great job raising Anna. As played by 12-year-old Nandi Drayton, she embodies cheerful, matter-of-fact confidence, whether instructing Grant in how to draw a purple octopus or measuring out the smallest carrots if she has to eat any at all.

The play makes much of the logistical challenges encountered by a same-sex couple that wants to have kids. Lilly is grossed out by the idea of artificial insemination from an anonymous donor, and Claire understandably has a problem with the idea of her partner getting pregnant the old-fashioned way. Some of Lilly’s stubbornness feels exaggerated for drama’s sake, but the dialogue is so lively and the cast so appealing that it’s easy to put any disbelief aside and just go with it.

Octopus’s Garden
Through April 7
Alcove Theater
414 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA

The show then plays April 14-28 as part of PianoFight’s Triple Threat (alternating with Mission CTRL Goes Public: The $7 Billion IPO and ForePlays’ This American Lie) at Stage Werx, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco.

Show #29 of 2012, attended March 17.

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