The moment I turned on my phone after landing in San Francisco for the opening of “Hamilton,” I was greeted with momentous local news: Carey Perloff, the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater here, had announced that she would be stepping down at the end of next season, bringing to a close a quarter century of sterling leadership of the city’s flagship theater.
I was naturally excited about “Hamilton: An American Musical” at the SHN Orpheum Theatre and was looking forward to reviewing “Roe” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. But between us, I was secretly relishing the chance to see Annie Baker’s “John” at the Strand, A.C.T.’s second stage, which opened in 2015 and has already become an aspirational venue for theater artists of an unconventional bent.
I consider Baker to be the most psychologically acute, slyly inventive American playwright working today and have been lamenting that L.A. audiences have been deprived of the chance to know her work better. In 2011, South Coast Repertory produced a fine production of Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (a perfect play for the Geffen Playhouse or the Pasadena Playhouse). But Baker’s “The Flick,” which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama, has yet to be produced in our region.
I didn’t get to New York for the Signature Theatre production of “John” in 2015 with Georgia Engel (who played Ted Baxter’s romantic dandelion puff on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). Baker wrote “John” with Engel in mind, so I was eager to catch her reprising her performance in the new San Francisco production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.
Seeing “John” at the Strand brought home all that the Bay Area and indeed the American theater will lose when Perloff steps down: an artistic leader with integrity of vision, discriminating literary taste and the executive muscle to make big projects happen.
The Strand, nestled between Twitter’s spiffy corporate headquarters and the still struggling Central Market neighborhood, is a kind of miracle. Real estate in San Francisco is impossible. Taking advantage of the opportunity to walk as much as possible on my short trip, I was astounded by both the overflow of homeless people on Market Street and the number of new construction sites for luxury housing. The city that once defined hippie counterculture and gay liberation has become a decadent emblem of American inequality.
Perloff, in a conversation at her office a few blocks from the Geary Theater, A.C.T.’s main stage, talked about the timing of her decision. “Symbolically,” she said, it felt right. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the theater founded by William Ball, and Perloff said she was surprised by how moved she had been by the commemorations, which had brought back many cherished collaborators.
In planning next season, her 25th, she couldn’t help taking stock. She said she’s ready to make the leap into the artistic unknown, to wake up in the morning and not know where she’s going to go. After so many artistic meetings and fundraising benefits, she’s eager to finally have a few unplanned days to follow her muse as a playwright and a director.
As for her leadership of A.C.T., she is proudest of having stayed true to the theater’s mission: “We have kept the ideal alive, and even though it’s radically changed from Bill Ball’s day, it’s the same impulse — that notion of ambitious, muscular, beautiful dramatic literature being produced in concert with the generational collaboration of artists in training, so that you have senior artists training younger artists.”
Fundamental to the theater’s success, she said, has been a commitment to the audience: “Bill Ball felt the audience would rise to the level that you challenged them to rise to, and I’ve always believed that too. We have never dumbed down.”
So, an anniversary season that includes the world premiere of “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” an adaption of Khaled Hosseini’s novel about the friendship of two Afghan women set against the backdrop of the Taliban’s rise to power, and Baker’s “John,” while undoubtedly special, is par for the course.
Perloff described “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a coproduction with Theatre Calgary, as one of the highlights of her time at A.C.T. “We did the first tech the day the first Muslim ban was supposed to go into effect,” she recalled. “We were sold out from the first preview. I never saw an audience respond like that, the laughter, the tears streaming down faces. Probably, we’re sobbing for our own country. I get it. But it’s turned out to be this total phenomenon.”
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” has apparently become a much sought-after work, and Perloff, who directed the show, plans to be involved in its future life. Shepherding a production that “embodies the values of A.C.T.” will certainly make her transition to freelance director and working playwright less abrupt.
That’s why I wanted to do ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ because at the center of the story is the incredibly rich friendship between two women.
As one of the most prominent female artistic directors in the American theater, Perloff has been an outspoken advocate of women’s issues. (Her memoir, “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater,” is an eloquent account of her own path in a still male-dominated field.) The dial is moving, she said, but her optimism about “how we write about and talk about women has been blunted by recent events.”
The election was naturally on her mind, but Perloff has long been troubled by the paucity of female stories onstage. “That’s why I wanted to do ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ because at the center of the story is the incredibly rich friendship between two women,” she said. “They’re not the sidekicks or the also-rans. It’s not about the man. It’s about them. It’s really about three generations of women.”
She challenged me to think of plays about female friendship, and admitted (after I came up blank) that aside from Celia and Rosalind in “As You Like It,” she too was hard pressed. “Now that is amazing, because my female friends are more important to me than almost anything, and yet it’s never written about,” she said.
“John” centers on the disintegrating relationship of two self-absorbed millennials, but female friendship plays a pivotal role. Engel’s Mertis, the proprietor of an affably eerie bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa., where the play is set, is staunchly loyal to her blind friend, Genevieve (Ann McDonough). The solidarity between them has a power that affects both Jenny (Stacey Yen) and Elias (Joe Paulik), the visiting couple who don’t seem fated to be a couple much longer.
Baker’s play immerses us for three hours in these kitschy accommodations, where time seems to obey its own rules and an air of supernatural menace gently hovers. Not much happens. The tense silences of the emotionally combustible visitors are relieved by passing conversation with their odd host and her equally peculiar friend. The play’s microscopic scrutiny of these uneventful but mysteriously resonant interactions might seem tedious, but I never once looked at my watch, because the psychology of the characters is so vividly captured and because Baker, who hints at occult realms beyond rational understanding, manages to stay one step ahead of her audience.
Producing “John” is a risk, but it’s the kind of risk that brings rich artistic rewards. Perloff, who has, in effect, come out as a dramatist after establishing herself as a director and an institutional leader, plans to devote more time to what she described as her “guilty pleasure” after relinquishing her administrative responsibilities at A.C.T.
Playwriting has always been central to her vision. She cited her dozen collaborative experiences with playwright Tom Stoppard as an “extraordinary” privilege. Her commitment to both new works and the classics has carried Ball’s radical vision to a less radical age.
Perloff said her biggest regret was the failure to sustain A.C.T.’s core acting company. (“The city got too expensive — artists can’t afford to live here anymore.”) But the theater’s thriving acting conservatory remains, and in an era that has seen nonprofit theaters become clearinghouses for jukebox musicals and other commercial trifles from Broadway, she has shored up A.C.T.’s reputation as one of the most principled regional theaters in America.
“I have really tried to stick to a purity of vision, which is very hard in this particular climate and will only get harder because the funding will only get harder. Whatever happens with Trump and the NEA, we are in a much more challenging era of arts and culture funding everywhere. It’s not that I’m not up for fighting that fight. But I thought it’s a gift to sit in this seat and to get to create this universe, and really now somebody else should have that opportunity and take it forward.”
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