In a recent newsletter from the San Francisco Playhouse, Artistic Director Bill English provided some insight into what guides him in his choice of plays for production at the Playhouse and in the Sandbox Series. “After 13 seasons of head scratching,” he says, “I’ve settled on two major attributes a play must have to be selected: 1) A unique perspective, and 2) Characters who compel me to care about them.” The world premiere of Lila Rose Kaplan’s 1, 2, 3 – the latest production in the Sandbox Series – scores highly on both counts.
The plot, although fictional, is based on an actual set of circumstances. In the early 1980s, the members of a small American Marxist organization, known as the ‘Ohio 7’, were on the run from the FBI, and were ultimately convicted on charges of conspiracy in 1987. Prior to their imprisonment, though, they were forced to live ‘underground’, attempting to raise their children as normally as possible in a highly unusual situation.
In 1, 2, 3, Kaplan imagines what life must have been like for the children of these people. Her story revolves around three sisters, whose parents have been jailed for terrorism offenses. Each of the girls has been farmed out to a different foster home, and the play deals with the circumstances with which they have to contend during a difficult stage in their lives. Much of the action takes place in the diner where the three of them meet up regularly – each giving herself a new name, each trying desperately to establish her own identity, and each battling to cope with what life has thrown at them. They end up referring to each other as 1, 2 and 3.
The eldest sister (played by Jessica Bates) is studious, and immerses herself in history. The middle one (Tristan Cunningham) only wants to dance, and the exuberant youngest sister (Devin Shacket) – who gets hold of her foster brother’s video camera – aims for a career in television. Jeremy Kahn plays Luke, who serves in the diner at weekends, and inevitably becomes involved in the lives of these highly unusual and intriguing sisters.
The play provides a fascinating – and often very funny – study of each of the girls’ characters, as they mature and develop, but the underlying tragedy of their situation is never completely submerged by the layer of practicality, humor and personal drive which each sister is determined to present to the world. Were this purely a work of fiction, one would be swept along by the laughs and the highly entertaining way in which the girls follow their chosen paths, but – with the realization that children actually found themselves in this sort of situation because of their parents’ ideology – the play has a strong element of poignancy.
As Director, Lauren English has done a grand job, drawing a fine performance from each of the players – from Jessica Bates’ desperate attempts to hold what remains of her family together, to Tristan Cunningham’s fierce determination for independence, Devin Shacket’s heartrending need to belong – and Jeremy Kahn’s endearing and thoroughly decent Luke who struggles to understand the respective mindsets of these three girls. There are also some marvelous dance routines from Cunningham and Kahn, choreographed by Sofia Ahmad.
Another Sandbox success for the San Francisco Playhouse!
1, 2, 3 runs at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter Street, until September 5th. For tickets and further information, visit the San Francisco Playhouse website, or call the box office on 415 677 9596.