Evocative Historical Satire in ‘Thomas and Sally’

Review of Thomas and Sally
By Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Jasson Minadakis

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA
Tickets: $10-49

RUN: September 28 – October 22, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(October 4, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), Martha Hemings (Ella Dershowitz), and Karen (Rosie Hallett). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thomas and Sally shakes the dust off history with a controversial new play by Thomas Bradshaw. He takes delight in arousing a heightened level of discomfort in the audience, eliciting shock from the humiliation of Robert Hemings, revulsion at the level of hypocrisy characters are capable of, and anger that manipulation can be such a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

Framed through the eyes of two college girls, who are refreshingly open about sexual needs, their perspective threads through the play, with musings on topics from how to safely masturbate when pregnant to whether the Electoral College is useful or eliminates the democratic process. Their imagination drives the story, leading to a confrontation between the students over whether Sally’s relationship with Jefferson was a lustful older man taking advantage of his teenage slave or a position of mutual understanding that Sally used to her benefit. The play does not attempt to answer the question; it presents a possible interpretation, leaving the audience to decide.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) watch the story unfold. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The knotwork family trees are explained in a detailed lobby display; the crucial connection is between Jefferson’s wife and her half-sister, Sally’s mother. Because the Hemings were therefore family, they resided in the house and did not participate in menial field labor. In Bradshaw’s vision, this made it difficult for Jefferson to see them as ordinary slaves; they had a certain level of standing, and he is flummoxed by their fiercely held dreams of becoming free.

The casual racism from white characters is alarming: a reminder of what this country was and still is in many ways. Jefferson’s quietly run estate is far from violent depictions of slavery, instead the institution runs silently in the background, ever present, erasing the humanity of its victims. He refers to them as servants, commenting that it is a lofty ideal to free them, but viewing his slaves as inferior children who need guidance and protection from a loving, intelligent master. I found myself nauseous from his horrifying statements that are introduced as normal observations in polite society. Director Jasson Minadakis subtly shifted focus between characters during such scenes, augmenting their effect.

From dorm room pajamas to a parade of extravagant 18th century gowns, Ashley Holvick’s costumes are remarkable. Sean Fanning’s classical set design is modular, expanding with the story, mingling modern pieces, like the mini fridge, with vaulting Ionic columns.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) contemplates architecture with Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Marin Theatre Company has assembled a forceful group of actors. Tara Pacheco as Sally Hemings captures an astute young woman who is aware of her difficult position, and is willing to fight for something more. William Hodgson is her brother, James Hemings, a talented man whose resourcefulness becomes a source of depression. Deeply troubled, he dutifully presses on; Hodgson carries the transformation from eager youth to jaded submission with painful accuracy. Portraying Thomas Jefferson as a flawed dreamer, Mark Anderson Phillips carefully steps between a sympathetic view and naively bigoted Jefferson who is used to getting his own way. Charlette Speigner’s fiery Betty Hemings manages to combine humor with tragedy in a memorable performance as Sally’s mother.

Marin Theatre Company’s commissioned Thomas and Sally is a challenging story for our time, laying bare preconceived impressions of American History through the energetic imagination of college students wrestling with current issues of race and the motivation that sex has on our culture. It may not be comfortable, but it is a brutal and entertaining reflection that needs to be considered if we are to move forward as a society.


Parental advisory: this play contains adult themes and full nudity.

Haunting Journey in ‘Constellations’

Review of Constellations
By Nick Payne
Directed by Juliet Noonan

For tickets & schedule:
6th Street Playhouse
Santa Rosa, CA
Tickets: $25-28, $22-25 Senior 62+, $18 Under 30

RUN: September 8 – 24, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(September 17, 2017)

Constellations - 6th Street Playhouse

Marianne (Melissa Claire) and Roland (Jared Wright) comfort each other. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Think back to the last time you made a decision, perhaps one where either outcome would have made a significant difference in your life. What if you were able to see the results of choosing an alternate path? It could be a matter of having chocolate ice cream over lemon sorbet for dessert, or it might lead to an entirely unique story with new relationships and outcomes. According to string theory, there may be a multiverse where each possibility exists, layered in a glorious tapestry of parallel universes. The structure of Constellations explores what it would be like to observe this phenomenon in action.

Step inside a swirling galaxy of lights by Ryan Severt and Conor Woods, lending a somber, contemplative atmosphere to 6th Street Playhouse’s Studio Theatre. This brief, intense play is a roller coaster of emotion; it gathers momentum, leaving the audience breathless by the end, tears forming from the level of raw vulnerability witnessed through Melissa Claire (Marianne) and Jared Wright (Roland) who are expertly directed by Juliet Noonan.

The actors move within situations in which multiple outcomes are possible—they begin dating, but say the wrong things and it falls apart, one of them loses interest, or it goes splendidly until he attempts to propose and chokes on his speech. Rather than a linear story, it is more of a waltz, stepping forward, then back, off to the side, and twirling to the beginning space. I felt myself wondering “what will happen this time?” eager to see the next vignette.

Throughout the interchanges, an odd, unexplained moment keeps repeating, as if so weighty that all other universes are drawn to it like gravity. This teasing mystery is slowly unveiled, until it becomes clear why that precise scene is pivotal, and this payoff is what causes the play to have personal depth beyond a technique experiment.

Constellations is a candid glimpse of possibilities that touch our existence, through two extraordinary actors, who take the audience on a journey through the clamor of multiple universes, demonstrating the power of connection and love through tragic circumstances. There will be laughs along the way, awkward dates, and lost opportunities, but through it all they find each other and the strength to eventually let go.

‘Grace’ Ponders the Intimacy of Belief

Review of Grace
By Craig Wright
Directed by John Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol
Tickets: $30, $25 Senior 65+, $15 Students

RUN: September 8-24, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(September 14, 2017)

Grace - Main Stage West

Sam (Sam Coughlin) and Sara (Ilana Niernberger) share a moment while Steve (John Browning) questions his decisions. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Personal beliefs formed through experience powerfully motivate decisions, whether feeling a sense of wonder in the universe or bitterness from the darkness it contains. Grace is a collection of four characters examining life through different lenses. Steve is an overbearing “born again” Christian, urging his faith on others whether they want to hear about it or not. His wife Sara has a quiet, deeper spirituality based on her loving, compassionate view of the world. Karl’s heinous experiences in Nazi Germany caused him to reject the idea of a deity entirely. Sam’s self-loathing and survivor’s guilt leave him vulnerable and searching for meaning.

This dark comedy follows a couple who recently moved to Florida, planning to renovate hotels, and their shut-in neighbor who is a scientist at NASA. What begins as an innocent attempt to help him feel included blossoms into friendship with the equally lonely stay at home wife.

Grace - Main Stage West

Sara (Ilana Niernberger) discusses hotel renovations with Steve (John Browning). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

While there is a definite story, playwright Craig Wright plays with abstract use of time, rearranging sequences, pausing scenes at crucial moments, and replaying encounters in slow motion to reiterate a point. Doug Faxon’s sound design situates the audience, moving through the complexity of this presentation style; John Craven’s direction keeps the sudden shifts clear and easy to follow. Missy Weaver’s creative lighting design shifts focus, illuminating specific areas of the stage, as needed. The result is a fascinating surreal journey with spikes in tension and a dramatic climax.

Blustering husband Steve (John Browning) constantly asks if others attended church growing up, and becomes irate at their lack of interest. I have met plenty of similarly enthusiastic Christians, wishing they could let it rest long enough to have a regular conversation. His smugly content facial expressions slowly grate at Sara (Ilana Niernberger) who is tired of his discordant insistence on ignoring the emotional landscape of a room to push his beliefs. He blusters at Sam, while his wife huddles on the couch, head in her hands, wishing it would end.

Grace - Main Stage West

Steve (John Browning) explains an investment opportunity to Sam (Sam Coughlin). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The two apartments overlap locations simultaneously, offering unique visual dynamics. A view of palm trees silhouetted by the sunset shimmers in the background, printed by Robert Brendt. Sam (Sam Coughlin) slides effortlessly between comedic exchanges with uncooperative technical support for his camera software and opening up to Sara about the tragedy of his past with anguished sensitivity. In a brief, dynamic role, Craven as Karl is an exterminator who arrives at the apartments, willing to argue down Steve’s self-righteous rhetoric.

Despite the title Grace, this is not a lighthearted Christian play. Wright brings the sharpened intellect of his Master of Divinity degree to bear on a broken faith community, shining a light into the crevices of petty arrogance and willful ignorance. Sara’s acute embarrassment at the typical behavior of a modern Christian is a reminder that whatever a person’s belief, it is more important to be present and aware of others, willing to set aside pride for their hopes and dreams. Main Stage West’s Grace is a disturbing and desperately needed commentary on using faith to excuse a litany of behaviors toward fellow human beings, gathering a riveting cast of local talent.

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