Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) and Tina (Monica Ho) meet again in “The Song of Summer” at the San Francisco Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse
The actor’s offer is different IRL. A gesture makes the empty space ripple all around. An eyebrow contracts and loosens, and the air changes – muddy, darker, then clearer. Spoken lines, no longer captured by a tiny box on a screen, fly up and expand to fill an entire room.
After more than a year without in-person indoor theater, actors performing right in front of you experience a shock, physical impact on your body. At the San Francisco Playhouse, four skilled artisans – Monica Ho, Jeremy Kahn, Anne Darragh, and Reggie D. White – are currently attacking a script with precision, clarity, thoughtfulness, and grace. It’s art that makes a dent.
Joe (Reggie D. White, left) tries to understand why Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) would give up a sold out concert tour on “The Song of Summer”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse
If the show “The Song of Summer” by San Francisco-born Lauren Yee gets ridiculous and gutted at times, it doesn’t really matter.
The unlikely pop star Robbie (Kahn) and his best high school friend Tina (Ho) have been hot for each other for more than a decade. As he escapes from his concert tour and his manager Joe (White) to return home and reconnect with something real that has nothing to do with fame, Yee has to put increasing obstacles in the couple’s path to avoid the inevitable to delay. He is clueless. She is proud.
At a pivotal moment in her youth, Robbie suddenly moved away from her hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania and the caring piano lessons from Tina’s mother, Mrs. C (Darragh), all the while believing that one final video recorded on a camcorder would somehow reach Tina and do everything right. Yee is also not averse to scooping with affirmations: “What happened in the end? I have you! So how is that even a mistake? “
Joe (Reggie D. White, left) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) discuss what to do next on The Song of Summer. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse
Much more often, however, Yee is both rigorous and playful with her dialogues. She lets her characters’ thoughts wander to strange, revealing places as if she were improvising with them: “I always wait for something to come of it,” says Tina of a tattoo that she shouldn’t have had.
But Yee is also a great carver and cropper who cuts away everything insubstantial and ruthlessly asks each line how it changes the relationship between two characters or the deployment of a scene.
Kahn as Robbie and White as Joe both have wonderful ways of picking up a new idea. They create space for their character’s forgetfulness or frustration, then even more space for a fresh thought that wriggles behind their eyes or slackens their facial muscles. Art stands for everyone from head to toe. Kahn’s Robbie is so stupid that his whole body hangs like a Basset Hound’s cheek. White’s Joe is curled up so tightly and ready to jump that in a moment he’ll have to hang himself over his cabin seat in a waffle house to make his point. Under the clever direction of Bill English, the two play off each other, each stimulating the other’s tendencies and progressing the scenes to well-defined emotional and narrative climaxes.
Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh, left) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) remember their memories in “The Song of Summer”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse
Darragh can reveal a whole life with just one line, one turn of his head. “I always ask myself what if,” she remembers once when she came second in a youth piano competition. A look away and a pause conjure up a different path that anything could have taken and the much less glamorous path that anything could have taken. Darragh’s Mrs. C. is curious but doesn’t regret it, not really, not most of the time.
Ho’s Tina is a revelation, but not of the flashy kind. Her Tina always operates on several levels – she distracts, searches, barbs anyone who is around (usually Robbie, the easiest target in the world) – but she also tries desperately to reveal something naked and longing in herself.
Tina (Monica Ho, left) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) meet again in “The Song of Summer”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse
She can take a break that seems to open a wormhole not only in the world of the play, but also in the theater space between the actor and the audience. Tina seeks a way to describe how deprived Pottsville is, and Ho doesn’t shy away from plunging her character into the vulnerable and depressing, but extends a welcoming hand to her audience and invites us to join her in the unknown.
m“The Song of Summer”: Written by Lauren Yee. Directed by Bill English. Until August 14th. One hour, 35 minutes. $ 30- $ 100 for personal tickets. $ 15- $ 100 for on-demand video tickets. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., SF 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org
Lily Janiak is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak