The foreboding title “And I and Silence” hints at the dark nature of acclaimed playwright Naomi Wallace’s new drama, now in its Bay Area premiere at the Magic Theatre. But that’s not to say there are not plenty of light moments as well.
The lightness comes when the two characters, Jamie and Dee — played by Tristan Cunningham and Jessi Campbell, respectively, in their mid-20s, and by Angel Moore and Siobhan Marie Doherty when they first meet as teens in prison — express their hopes for the future in the form of rhyming couplets and little skits.
The aggressive Dee, who’s white, approaches the more cautious Jamie with an offer of— no, a demand for — friendship.
Once bonded, the two are separated for a while by the prison system, but eventually reunited. The BFFs dream of a life together, as cleaning ladies for rich folks. They swear to never let the man of the household “cross the line,” no matter how much they need to keep the job.
Played out on Daniel Ostling’s stark, painterly set, “And I and Silence” has traces of “Orange Is the New Black” in Wallace’s setup, a smidgen of Jean Genet’s disturbing play “The Maids” in the way the two women re-enact scenes of their own degradation, and even (quasi-spoiler alert ahead) an iota of “Thelma and Louise.”
The degradation is especially intense because it’s the segregated 1950s, and although the women’s friendship is apparently acceptable when they’re incarcerated, it’s dangerous on the outside.
It’s an interesting writerly device for the characters in this love story to be embodied by two sets of actors. Yet, with the time span covering only eight years, onstage it’s never quite convincing that these women were once those girls, or that those girls evolved into these women.
And Wallace’s script is flat for about the first two-thirds of the hour-and-a-half running time as we watch flashbacks to the younger pair getting together, interspersed with (the much more interesting, both writing- and acting-wise) scenes of the older pair struggling to adjust to life outside.
Nor do the more upbeat, playful moments work especially well: Wallace’s lyrical dialogue is slightly contrived, and the actors haven’t found a way to make the games seem spontaneous.
Despite Loretta Greco’s otherwise laudably unshowy and sensitive direction, things get maudlin at the end – hard to avoid, given Wallace’s heavy-handed approach.
The emotional gravity of the piece is undeniable, but so is its tendency, ultimately, toward melodrama.
And I and Silence
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: Wednesdays-Sundays; closes Nov. 23
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org