Olive Kitteridge springs to life on stage

Olive Kitteridge doesn’t mince words. She’s brusque and short-tempered, snapping at neighbors, and barely civil to her friends. When she meets a man who’s fainted on a jogging trail, she says, “Are you dead?”

She’s not someone you’d want as a mother or a wife. Yet, she made an indelible impression as the title character of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And, as played by actress Patricia Silver in the new Word for Word production of “Olive Kitteridge,” she comes alive as a vibrant theatrical character.

Strout’s 2008 book, written as a collection of connected stories, proves to be rich material for Word for Word’s style of staging literary works exactly as written.

Joel Mullennix’s production, which opened the company’s inaugural season with Z Space at Theater Artaud last weekend, focuses on two episodes from the book, “Tulips” and “River.”  The results are both poignant and hilarious.

Audiences new to Word for Word are always astonished by the insight the group brings to classic stories, and Mullennix’s 2½-hour production faithfully captures Olive’s barbed wit and unvarnished misanthropy.  Seven actors play all the characters, with the designs of Jim Cave (lighting), Tucki Bailey (sound), Laura Hazlett (costumes) and David Szlasa (sets) smoothing transitions from scene to scene.

 “Tulips” introduces Olive and her husband, Henry.  Both are recently retired — Olive as a schoolteacher, Henry as a pharmacist — and old age seems to stretch ahead of them with little to offer. 

Henry’s satisfied, but Olive’s irritated with him, angry with their distant son, Christopher, and estranged from her neighbors.  Her comforts are few: a transistor radio, her plot of tulips and her daily walks by the river. 

When Henry has a stroke in the supermarket parking lot, she plunges into despair — until she makes an odd connection with a reclusive neighbor, Louise (played to fluttery perfection by Nancy Shelby.)

“River” follows the story several years into the future.  Henry has died and Olive, “drowning in the emptiness” of loss, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jack, the man she finds collapsed on the trail.

Silver imbues Olive with dignity and intelligence, and the supporting cast is excellent. Warren David Keith is a standout as Jack, and Paul Finocchiaro and Patrick Alparone make strong contributions as Henry and Christopher, respectively. Jeri Lynn Cohen, Michelle Bellaver and Shelby round out the ensemble as hikers, bikers and skaters; gossiping neighbors; and even a bed of Olive’s beloved tulips waving in the breeze. 

THEATER REVIEW

Olive Kitteridge

Presented by Word for Word

Where: Z Space, Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 26

Tickets: $20 to $40

Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.zspace.org

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