Kirsten Greenridge approaches formidable core of human behavior in ‘Zenith’

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Behind the white picket fence, the two-story home, and the reassuring smiles and laughter, things are not always as perfect as they appear. It’s a theme that has been countlessly visited before, but only necessarily so — it is perhaps one of the truest depictions of the modern human experience.

In the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of “Zenith” playwright Kirsten Greenidge confronts the gray area that lies between good and evil — a space that more accurately characterizes ordinary lives rather than the dichotomy itself.

Angela, played by Atim Udoffia, is a loving aunt and a fulltime mother, a role that she has filled for her absent mother since she was nine years old. The perfect bologna sandwiches, dual TV screens in the mini-van and her perfectionism are all tell-tale signs that Angela has mastered motherhood.

But everything is not as “amazing” as Angela repeatedly claims. Class conflicts, disloyalty and insecurities are constant pangs of anxiety that disrupt the characters of “Zenith.” And when Angela is tipped over at the highest point of pressure, she commits an unforeseeable criminal act.

The premise of Greenidge’s play is nothing particularly new, but it stands out with an execution that is both effective and economical. Actors Sally Dana and Indiia Wilmott admirably assume several roles to populate Angela’s life. Children are physically absent, but with a few pre-recorded words, school backpacks and a high chair, their presence is still felt thanks to the strength of Greenidge’s tragic script and the intensity of the few players utilized in the production.

By stripping the stage down to its skeleton, scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott removes the boundary between stage and audience to align with Greenidge’s vision — instilling empathy and compassion in those we so often turn our backs to. The stage itself is removed as the audience is seated at the same floor the players move on — essentially, Scott practices the well-understood but oftentimes under-practiced idea that to walk in the shoes of others is to learn empathy.

Although limiting the design elements achieves an appropriate and practical effect, the simplicity of the production renders the show and its cast and crew prone to creative risks. The bare nature of the stage leaves a lot of responsibility on the players to convince the audience that we are inside the upper middle class home of Hazel (Nia Fairweather) and Tim (Khary L. Moye) or outside a trailer park in New Hampshire — any missteps or hesitance in the actors’ or actresses’ delivery of lines will not only be noticeable, but amplified.

But just as the audience is more liable to notice the potential mistakes in performances, they are also made more sensitive to its successes. Where the stage is left empty, the screenplay and the players fill in. As we are exposed to the people close and dear to Angela before the crime, Greenidge deftly intercuts interrogation scenes of Angela’s acquaintances.

Even the people Angela merely brushes by in her life are still key players that not only help shape Angela’s character, but also impart the conventions and ideals pressured upon a modern woman. The dentist, one of Wilmott’s many roles, who adamantly wants us to know that she’s “not a feminist,” and the seamstress, also played by Dana, who would be devastated without a proper mother figure, round out Angela’s environment and make it more palpable.

However, the tough thematic questions asked by “Zenith” are difficult to answer, and the final scene is a testament to this challenge — it’s hard to say if the closing scene offers any satisfactory closure to the question of whether “we can ever truly fathom another human being.”

But perhaps that’s exactly the point of Greenidge’s “Zenith.” Life is not structured into several acts with curtains that open and close, indicating the beginning and end of a hero’s journey, nor is there a day in a life when we can say, “Here is where our struggle ends.”

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].

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