From the minute you enter the cavernous Z Space theater, Sarah Shourd’s “The Box” is disturbing — strikingly, even beautifully, so.
Onstage, five prisoners are trapped in separate, wire-walled cages linked together–two layers of cages in three manually movable modules (designed by Sean Riley).
In fact, when you’re still out in the lobby you can hear one of the prisoners, Looneytunes (J Jha, shatteringly convincing), shrieking.
By the time the house lights dim, the nervous energy transmitted from stage to audience is palpable.
Shourd, an Oakland journalist and activist against the overuse of solitary confinement in the United States, was famously arrested in Iran in 2009, along with two American friends, for accidentally crossing a border, and ended up in solitary for 410 days.
Her experiences inspired this play, for which she interviewed prisoners and others all over the country. That she so imaginatively and so empathetically transformed the material into a dynamic fictional format, with memorable characters, is impressive.
The prisoners — including a young man (Chris H. Holland) who’s brought in early on as the sixth convict — gradually become full-formed human beings without ever compromising the gritty reality of their crimes and their circumstance.
There’s Ray, a Black Panther, who’s been in solitary for 19 years (a deeply touching performance by Steven A. Jones).
Also: Clive Worsley as a white supremacist; Carlos Aguirre as a Latino who receives occasional visits from his beloved daughter (Gabby Battista); and Michael J. Asberry as a perhaps simpatico guard.
Manuel Fernandez and Valerie Weak round out the exceptionally fine cast.
Almost every element of this production works, from Michael John Garcés’ sensitive direction and Stacey Printz’s fine-tuned choreography to Allen Willner’s dramatic lights, Tom Ontiveros’ backdrop of abstract and realistic videos and Jon Bernson’s varied, almost insidious sound design.
But at two lengthy acts, “The Box” is too long. Tension tends to dissipate and internal monologues — no fault of the actors — sometimes drag.
The relationships among the prisoners, which change along the way, are crucial, and effective.
But the see-through cells and the characters’ ongoing dialogue make it hard, despite a willingness to suspend disbelief, to get a visceral sense of what years of separation from other human beings feels like — which is Shourd’s most important message. Ultimately this is a devastating prison play, but not necessarily a solitary-confinement drama.
Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m Sundays; closes July 30
Tickets: $20 to $60