Few plays could seem more intriguing to me than a noir mystery set in San Francisco. Written by Obie Award-winning Bay Area playwright Christopher Chen (“Caught”), “The Headlands” met my expectations by combining a multifaceted noir mystery filled with visual and contextual images of San Francisco with an Asian immigration chronicle. The spotless direction by Tony Award winner and A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, the talented cast, and the creative scenic and projection designs by Alexander V. Nichols creates an atmospheric and dramatic presentation.
I knew I would relish “The Headlands” when the lead character, 30-something, slightly awkward Henry (excellent Phil Wong), broke the fourth wall and introduced himself to the audience. In an unpretentious conversational tone, Henry explains that he is a proud San Francisco native, a resident of the foggy Outer Sunset, a Google techie, and a true crime lover. After the recent cancer death of his mother, he has finally decided to explore the mystery of the unexplained death of his father, George, 20 years before the play’s action. Henry’s mother, Leena (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), left a few tantalizing clues before her recent death. Was it a burglary gone wrong, as the SFPD detective (Charles Shaw Robinson) peremptorily states, or could it have been murder or suicide?
With the initial help of his girlfriend Jess (outstanding Sam Jackson), Henry’s quest
leads him to explore the previously unknown circumstances of his parents’’ meeting and marriage (both young parents are well-played by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Johnny M. Wu). Complicating Henry’s parents’ relationship is their uneven social status and the pressure it bares on the young couple., George, a recent immigrant, is an insecure dishwasher in Chinatown. On the other hand, Leena is a second-generation American daughter of a wealthy but stern Pacific Heights father. The young couple met and courted in the Marin Headlands, Lands’ End, and Coit Tower.
Henry’s slight and out-of-focus recollections of his parents are mirrored by the shadowy projections and videos of an older San Francisco superimposed on the stage. He interviews his father’s business partner (Charles Shaw Robinson) and his mother’s best friend (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) in an attempt to turn his hazy haphazard memories into cohesive facts. The threads of information lead the audience through blind alleys and dark corners before the truth immerges.
Whether children should learn about their parents’ private lives underlies “The Headlands.” And it begs the question, should children discover the lives of their parents as people, separate from their role as parents? This is part of Henry’s quandary. Because once known, some information can’t be unknown. How Henry handles this fundamental question is at the essence of “The Headlands.”
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved.