Word for Word, now 25 years old, has a winner on its hands with its latest production, a verbatim staging of five short stories from American writer Lucia Berlin’s compilation “A Manual for Cleaning Women.”
Under the title “Lucia Berlin: Stories,” the company configured the tales to trace, loosely, an everywoman’s struggle with alcoholism.
Berlin, who was born in 1936 and died in 2004, did not link these stories through one character. But according to the program, she herself said everything she writes is autobiographical, so it makes sense to imagine that central, fraught figure as Lucia.
Word has arranged the stories to suggest a character arc, beginning with the brief “Her First Detox” and ending with the hopeful, even cathartic “Here It Is Saturday.”
As always, Word keeps all author’s text intact; it’s shared by various characters in ways that beautifully illuminate Berlin’s writing — as do, Marcus Shelby’s terrific jazz score and Naomie Kremer’s foggy, almost ethereal video design.
Directed with imagination and insight by Nancy Shelby and JoAnne Winter, the diverse ensemble of seven interact fluidly, playing several characters apiece — Phil Wong’s deadpan Oakland cop, Indiia Wilmott’s histrionic emergency room patient, Gendell Hernández’s personification of a cat — along with inanimate objects and beautifully orchestrated physical abstractions. (The stellar ensemble also includes Cassidy Brown, Delia MacDougall, Ryan Williams French and the wonderful Norman Gee.)
Of the two most powerful stories, “Unmanageable” is almost unbearably intense. The woman (played through all five stories with great empathy by Jeri Lynn Cohen), a single mother living in Oakland, is on the verge of debilitating alcohol withdrawal. But one of her sons has taken away her car keys and wallet. Frantically gulping down lemon extract to stave off delirium tremens, she searches every corner of the house to scrape together four dollars for a bottle of vodka and walks 45 minutes to the nearest early-morning liquor store. It’s an undiluted portrait of an addict on the edge, and Cohen makes every moment ring true.
Equally powerful is the evening’s final story, set in a jail where the central woman (known by various names from story to story), a former alcoholic, teaches a weekend writing class for the incarcerated. Narrated by the only white student in the class (Brown), it’s a poignant conclusion to this sad, touching and funny set of tales.
Lucia Berlin: Stories
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, closes March 11
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: www.zspace.org (415) 626-0453