13 Aug Love And Understanding, 2004

‘Love’ finds hope amid loss
Local premiere at new TheatreFIRST

by Robert Hurwitt
San Francisco Chronicle

There’s little room for idealism or even romantic daydreaming in Joe Penhall’s world of stressed-out doctors and mythomaniac drifters. Ethics are compromised.
Love dies. Friendship is badly abused. “Cynics,” says a disillusioned emergency room doctor, “are realists surrounded by idiots.”

What’s remarkable about Penhall’s “Love and Understanding” in this TheatreFirst production is the tentative hope it sustains amid an abiding sense of loss. The 1997 play provides an intriguing first local look at one of England’s latest crop of angry young playwrights, soon to be represented on Broadway in a National Theatre staging of his “Blue/Orange.”

It’s also a new beginning for TheatreFirst, a small but often noteworthy company that has moved from its sometime home at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theatre to the Oakland YWCA (also designed by Morgan) after a two-year hiatus. Artistic director Clive Chafer stages the play in the round for greater flexibility and intimacy than the small stage at one end of the second-floor hall could provide.

Sets and lighting are barely adequate, though Greg Scharpen augments the action with well-chosen music and sound effects. Despite beautifully detailed performances from the three-person cast, the drama takes a while to set in. That’s partly a problem of staging Penhall’s short, crisp scenes in this format and of what appears at first to be a far too familiar plot: the charmingly irresponsible rebel/sociopath who intrudes on a troubled couple and disrupts, transforms or destroys their lives.

Penhall throws some interesting curves, however, both in what happens to his characters and in his critique of aimlessly overworked lives in an over- stressed health care system. Newlywed actors Simon Vance and Cynthia Bassham create vivid portraits of doctors succumbing to tensions, misunderstandings and thwarted affection. Darren Bridgett exudes obnoxious charm and predatory sexuality laced with boyish vulnerability as the interloper, Richie. The unexpected, battered warmth Vance and Bassham project amid the emotional wreckage lingers long after the play ends.

Robert Hurwitt—San Francisco Chronicle

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