In the program for SF Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of “Honey Brown Eyes,” there’s an insert titled “What Happened in Bosnia?”
What indeed? The Bosnian War of the early 1990s, which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, involved Serbs and Croats; Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox; Bosnia and Herzegovina and more. It was confusing and difficult to understand at the time, even for those who lived there, let alone for us to remember now.
But none of that matters much in viewing this powerful play, by New York playwright Stefanie Zadravec, which takes an unblinking and compassionate look at the human costs of a war that pits neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.
It’s an auspicious season opener for SF Playhouse, as it boasts Susi Damilano’s astute direction, a sublime cast and the excellent production values for which the company is noted, right down to the cast’s uniform accents, the design elements (especially Brendan Aanes’ sound design) and the most minute technical details.
The first act of the compact two-act drama is set in Visegrad, a major site of ethnic cleansing.
As the play begins, a Serbian soldier and erstwhile rock musician, Dragan (a sweating, hyperventilating Nic Grelli), has invaded the home of Alma, a Muslim Croat and the “Honey Brown Eyes” of the title.As Alma, Jennifer Stuckert’s inner anguish and mental exhaustion are palpable.
Dragan’s holding her at gunpoint in her kitchen, demanding that she turn over the daughter that he’s been ordered to capture — but whose existence Alma steadfastly denies.
Will Alma be tortured, raped, killed? Dragan threatens all three fates for her. When the two discover a shared past, the tenor in the room changes. Nevertheless, anything remains possible under the all-too-realistic circumstances.
The second act, cleverly divided into three sections, is set in another kitchen, in Sarajevo under siege (excellent set by Bill English).
In it, an old Serbian lady (Wanda McCaddon, endearingly plainspoken and bossy) potters about, quietly cooking, until her door is broken in and a Bosnian army deserter (a convincingly desperate and haunted-looking Chad Deverman) — who is, in fact, Alma’s estranged brother — begs for refuge. As they drink wine and confide in each other, a touching and at times comical rapport develops between the two presumed enemies.
Like all the other scenes, which also include Cooper Carlson in a few roles, and young Madeleine Pauker (alternating with Rachel Share-Sapolsky), it is perfectly paced, unsentimental, gripping. The show is a triumph.
Presented by SF Playhouse
Where: SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, plus 3 p.m. Saturdays, closes Nov. 5
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org