When the filmy golden curtain whooshes aside to reveal the blue-lit facade of the house that is the scenic backdrop for “Indian Ink,” an evocative and richly sensorial world appears. It is a world in which playwright Tom Stoppard’s heroine, fictional British poet Flora Crewe, is suddenly immersed.
American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff, who has a well-known affinity for the works of the British playwright, brings this time-traveling drama (set mainly in the 1930s, when India was under the Raj, and peripherally in the 1980s) vividly to life, with theatrical precision: the brutal heat, vibrant color, sounds (including original score) and cultural clashes.
In interweaving scenes, we see independent-minded Flora (a sunny, graceful Brenda Meaney) arrive in the state of Jummapur. She’s come for her health and for adventure, accepting hospitality in return for lecturing on the English literary life. Not only the British colonialists but also the Indians she meets are interested in her subject.
Most important among the latter group is the artist Mr. Das, played by Firdous Bamji with an endearing mix of awkwardness and melancholy. He’s a confirmed Anglophile who nevertheless is increasingly tuned into the anti-colonial movement that is beginning to sweep the country. When he asks to paint Flora’s portrait — and she agrees, proposing to write poetry while posing — the two venture into an ambiguous relationship. We follow Flora’s adventures through letters she writes to her sister back home.
Concurrently, in the modern era, an American biographer (Anthony Fusco) who’s researching Flora’s Indian sojourn seeks out her surviving sister (Roberta Maxwell) in England. But the sister is cautious. It isn’t until she receives a visit from Mr. Das’ son (Pej Vahdat) that she opens up emotionally. Meanwhile, the biographer continues his investigation, with the portrait of Flora becoming an important part of the mystery.
Playwright and director braid the two time-frames together seamlessly.
Stoppard has rewritten parts of the play (which was originally conceived for radio) since Perloff first produced it in 1999 as an American premiere at ACT: He has clarified the plot; made the delicate, burgeoning and socially inappropriate relationship between Flora and Das, with all its accompanying arguments about art and politics, more central; and created a new, and poignant, ending.
Perloff first directed this new version at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, bringing it home with much of the excellent cast intact. It all works beautifully.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Feb. 8
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org