'Period of Adjustment' offers wit, wisdom and woe for the holidays

Courtesy photoHoliday meetup: From left

At the beginning of SF Playhouse’s production of Tennessee Williams’ self-described 1960 “serious comedy” called “Period of Adjustment,” former Korean War hero Ralph (a restless, conflicted Johnny Moreno) eagerly awaits the arrival of his best friend and war buddy, George (a riveting Patrick Alparone), and George’s new bride, Isabel (MacKenzie Meehan in a deeply empathetic portrayal).

Although we’re in Williams’ familiar South, it’s a snowy Christmas Eve — we see a luminous, frosty image through a picture window in Nina Ball’s excellent, multilevel period set. Like the cold weather, some elements of this play feels un-Williamsy, including the upbeat, if unconvincing, ending.

But other elements, like the loneliness and alienation of all four principal characters, is very much Williams territory.

Still other elements — such as the fact that Ralph, George and Isabel are all recently unemployed with uncertain futures — seem surprisingly contemporary.

This Christmas Eve is a life-changing one. Ralph’s wife, Dorothea (Maggie Mason), left him that morning, taking their young son with her; “I quit my job so my wife quit me,” says Ralph wryly. He’d been working for her autocratic father, played by Joe Madero.

George, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrom since the war, and Isabel are reeling from a disastrous first honeymoon night. “You’re just going through a period of adjustment,” smooth-talking Ralph tells the distraught couple soothingly, and repeatedly.

But it’s clearly much, much more than that.

Williams wrote this play right in the middle of his prolific career, just after “Sweet Bird of Youth” and before “Night of the Iguana” and other, less appreciated plays such as “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”

But “Period of Adjustment,” which lacks the poetry of some of his earlier hits and trades those qualities in for a certain amount of humor, revisits many of his favorite themes.

We recognize in George — who is seized by mysterious and embarrassing tremors, afraid of his own sexuality, a dreamer — other troubled Williams characters. And, in a foreboding touch reminiscent of some of Williams’ more surreal work, Ralph and Dorothea’s house is slowly sinking into an underground cavern.

Ultimately, Williams’ exploration of a pair of mismatched couples probes much deeper than a mere comedy about marital discord. It’s about the way we are all fundamentally unknowable to one another, yet need each other.

Under Bill English’s predictably strong direction, with a terrific cast, this SF Playhouse production deftly captures every comic and poignant nuance in the script.

THEATER REVIEW

Period of Adjustment

Presented by SF Playhouse

Where: 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays; plus 3 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Dec. 21-22; closes Jan. 14
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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