SF Playhouse’s ‘Tree’ a blossoming family drama

The tangled roots of one American family run deep in the new San Francisco Playhouse production of “Tree.”

Issues of race, gender and identity are engrained in Julie Hébert’s affectingly layered drama, which begins when white gender studies professor Didi (Susi Damilano) arrives at the South Chicago home of African-American chef Leo (Carl Lumbly.)

They’ve never met before, but Didi tells Leo she’s his half-sister. Fifty years earlier, she explains, Leo’s mother, Jessalyn (Cathleen Riddley), and Didi’s late father were lovers. Now Didi’s come looking for a cache of letters that passed between them. But Leo, in a late-night, gin-fueled encounter, makes it clear that he wants no part of Didi or their shared past. “Your father,” he tells her, “was a sorry footnote in my mother’s otherwise dignified life.”

The only person who could sort it all out is Jessalyn, who lives upstairs, cared for by Leo and his daughter J.J. But it’s clear that Jessalyn’s grasp of reality is increasingly tentative. Slipping into dementia, she alternates between confusion, poetic flights of memory, and an angry, violent male persona she assumes at unexpected moments.

The answers seem to be preserved in those letters, tantalizingly displayed in stacks of cardboard boxes that sprawl across Nina Ball’s two-level set. It’s a captivating premise, one that Hébert uses to explore several philosophical questions: How much of identity is based on parental ties? Can past injustices ever be finally resolved? And how can a family hope to function without shared memories?

“Tree” doesn’t supply easy answers, and a few of Hébert’s layers – particularly the gender issues – end up feeling extraneous. But director Jon Tracy’s well-cast production sustains interest until the end.

Lumbly, who has become an invaluable presence on Bay Area stages in recent years, imbues Leo with an appealing blend of sardonic humor, guarded intelligence and stubborn resistance. Damilano’s Didi gradually reveals the vulnerable core underneath her brash, tough-girl exterior. Tristan Cunningham gives a luminous performance as the bright, down-to-earth J.J.

Still, it’s Riddley’s Jessalyn who makes “Tree” a riveting experience. She’s a mercurial presence, one who moves gracefully from formidable matriarch to fragile invalid to hopeful young wife and lover in scene after scene. And when she delivers the poetry of long-buried memories, the strength of this family tree seems made to endure.



Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes March 7

Tickets: $20 to $120

Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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