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Mesmerizing ‘Zenith’ digs into a shocking family tragedy

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From left, Indiia Wilmott, Atim Udoffia and Nia Fairweather are excellent in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Zenith.” (Courtesy Ken Levin/SF Playhouse)

“Zenith” begins shockingly, as a woman in a car suddenly takes her hands off the steering wheel and throws them into the air.

The drama then circles back in time, and fast forwards as well, in this gripping world premiere, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s new-plays Sandbox Series.

It’s a compact, emotionally intense and beautifully acted story loosely based on a real event from which Boston-based award-winning playwright Kirsten Greenidge created this theatrical version.

In it, a young mother, Angela (Atim Udoffia), swoops into the house of her brother, Tim (Khary L. Moye) and sister-in-law, Hazel (Nia Fairweather) and insists upon taking their two kids, along with her own four, off for a Memorial Day road trip.

Angela’s acting strange, for sure, and Hazel at first objects, but then relents.

The story unfolds through a fractured lens that takes us as far back as Angela’s troubled childhood — when, at age 9, she was forced to be a mother-figure to Tim (she was “large and in charge,” recalls Tim) — and forwards to the aftermath of an inevitable disaster, when various friends and neighbors (Sally Dana and Indiaa Wilmott) talk to a video camera, sharing their opinions of Angela.

A key figure is Angela’s husband, Chuck (Adrian Roberts), a man with a big family that he can’t support, a man consumed with shame and ambivalence.

Shame, poverty, alienation, a longing for love — they’re all part of the larger societal picture Greenidge paints as she explores the lead-up and aftermath of the tragic circumstances within this extended African-American family.

Structurally complex, and at times somewhat confusing, “Zenith” is never less than mesmerizing.

Director Lauren English and her superb cast dig deep to illuminate every corner of Greenidge’s script, which combines natural dialogue and interior monologue, both flowing and stuttering, with just the touch of subtly elevated language.

Udoffia’s performance is especially affecting; when she throws her long arms into the air and cries, as she does repeatedly, “This is the life!” the pain and strain in her voice, and on her expressive face, are heartbreaking.

Unfortunately the staging, on the narrow, lengthwise strip of playing area in the small venue, is awkward; a large part of the audience too often sees only the actors’ backs. With performances like these, you don’t want to miss a moment.

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: ACT’s Costume Shop, 1119 Market St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 10
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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