Under some strobe lights, and acted in slow-motion, the provocative prologue to “you are my sunshine, a play with folk songs … based on a true story,” shows a man shooting two women.
At the end of Act 1, a heart-stopping scene shows another, more intense, version of the violence.
Those moments were the subject of mysterious family secrets that troubled playwright Kelli Kerslake Colaco, who grew up hearing tidbits of the hushed story: that her great-grandfather Ernest Fletcher Hodge, briefly a minor league baseball player for the Detroit Tigers, killed his wife and mother-in-law in Arkansas in 1931.
Colaco not only fills in details that led to the tragedy, and more or less sets the story straight, she convincingly portrays Ernest’s concerned, dissatisfied mother-in-law in the compelling drama onstage in an Alma Theatre Company production at the Phoenix Theatre in The City.
Simply evocative folk songs (also by Colaco) sung by Ernest’s son, the show’s narrator, connect the scenes, which jump back and forth between periods in Hodge’s life: in the 1950s, showing up at his sister’s house after a long absence and silence; in 1927, enjoying life at home with his young, loving wife, and on the road with the baseball team; as well as unpleasant domestic incidents in 1930 that prompted the fateful shooting.
Co-directed by Cristina Anselmo and Colaco, the actors bring their characters’ struggles to light. As Ernest Hodge, Tim Fullerton strikes a terrific balance, revealing his love and commitment, as well as his inflexibility, anger and rage.
Andrea J. Love excellently conveys dilemmas facing Hodge’s wife Anise, who adores her husband, misses him, all the while defending him from her mother, who harps on his flaws.
As Irene’s sister, Valerie Weak shows nuanced concern, and frustration, with her clearly troubled brother; while singing-guitar-playing Trevor Marcom’s musical interludes, assisted by arranger-guitarist Chris Haugen, add emotion.
With modest production values — including a terrific sound design by Ian Walker and Shannon Slaton that has catchy radio commercials of the era opening each act — “you are my sunshine” could benefit from more expansive staging.
A bigger production might even better reflect a subject as formidable as a tragedy whose repercussions haunted generation after generation.
you are my sunshine
Presented by Alma Theatre Company
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., sixth floor, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. April 27-28
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com