Compelling Plays by Women Open A.C.T.’s Season

by Jean Schiffman

New A.C.T. artistic director Pam MacKinnon steps out boldly.

The two plays that American Conservatory Theater’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, chose to inaugurate her first season—Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” and Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats”—are stylistically different: the former, a blistering, of-the-moment drama set mostly in a neighborhood bar; the latter, an irreverent, rollicking comedy that traces a historically based river voyage.

But both are quintessentially American plays and are rich with complex interpersonal dynamics. That, and both are written in fine-tuned, authentic current vernacular.

“I’m very drawn to muscular language, argument, character-driven stories that use
language as action,” says MacKinnon, a nationally acclaimed director who has worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theater and who won an Obie for “Clybourne Park” and a Tony for a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Locally, she directed Berkeley Rep’s 2015 world premiere of the musical “Amélie” and Victor Lodato’s “3F, 4F” at the Magic Theatre in 2005.

On the Geary mainstage, Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Sweat,” opens the season. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, the heart of steel country, it follows a close-knit, multi-generational group of assembly-line co-workers at the city’s metal tubing factory who gather regularly at the local bar. The action shifts back and forth between 2000 and 2008 (it begins on September 29, 2008, the day the stock market crashed); as the economic landscape shifts, so too do the relationships among the lifelong friends.

Nottage, a playwriting professor at Columbia University, is known for such plays as the searing “Ruined,” the gentler “Intimate Apparel” and more. She based “Sweat” on interviews she conducted, over several years, with citizens of Reading, starting in 2012. (In 2011, the Census Bureau named Reading the poorest city in the nation.) It was commissioned and originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then staged at New York’s Public Theatre before transferring to Broadway.

“Lynn grounds this play so well in the personal,” observes MacKinnon, who herself grew up in Buffalo, a Rust Belt city. “It’s about friends and family, and how fear and economic insecurity can destroy and/or transform a community.” She gravitates toward playwrights like Nottage who wrestle with “big, messy questions, like what has happened in this country that so many people are living below the poverty line?”

In “Sweat,” when it becomes clear that the factory plans to downsize, and when one member of the group applies for a management position, loyalties fracture, and the results are life-changing. Especially affected is the friendship between two middle-aged women, Cynthia, who’s African-American, and Tracey, who’s Caucasian, as well as the fates of their respective adult sons.

Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco directs “Sweat.” Says Greco, “It feels akin to Sam Shepard—that broken American dream.… It’s so pulsing with politics, but they’re personal, and it’s a beautiful, well-made play with incredibly intricate characters, a structure that’s incredibly theatrical. It’s not political agitprop, though—that’s the beauty of Lynn. She’s probably one of our best American writers; she can take anything real and make a piece of art out of it.”

MacKinnon says she wants to share stories that “ask us to play.” Hence, “Men on Boats,” based on the 1869 travel log of Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell (“a one-armed crazyface with a fiery temper,” as Backhaus describes him in the script), who, with his crew and four boats, charted the Colorado and Green rivers, from Wyoming to the “Big Canyon,” on a government-sanctioned expedition. The treacherous journey is captured on the Strand’s small stage with no men and no actual boats; as requested by the playwright, none of the actors are cisgender white males, so all characters (including the chief of the Ute tribe and his wife, the Bishop) are played by 10 local women of various ethnicities. The boats, the river, the cliffs, the white-water rapids and the canyon are a matter of ingenious stagecraft and audience imagination.

Brooklyn-based playwright Backhaus learned about Powell’s expedition in fourth grade and it stuck with her. She ultimately developed the play at New York’s Clubbed Thumb, where it premiered in 2015 and then went to Off-Broadway. Researching the various first-person accounts of the adventure, some of which are contradictory, she mainly drew from Powell’s account, fictionalizing the characters as needed.

“Jaclyn set herself the task of digging into what exploration means,” MacKinnon says, “the competition among these characters, the joy and ecstasy of turning a corner and seeing something beautiful as well as the agony of the unknown and the desperation of extreme exploration.” She asked New York-based Tamilla Woodard to direct it because of Woodard’s exceptional talent with both language and physicality, and because “she’s a big ensemble builder.”

Woodard, who directs both nationally and internationally, emphasizes that the women in the cast are not embodying male roles in a jokey way; it’s not about being ironic. “Always the stage needs to represent the world, and my world is not 80 percent white people and the play shouldn’t be either,” she says. “I think the diversity in the cast is the diversity that exists in San Francisco.” She looked for actors who were playful, who could turn a chair into a cliff or a canyon, and found them easily in auditions. 

Her first directorial challenge was the play’s scenography. “Each of the boats is their own mini-universe,” she explains. “We show you about 25 percent; you’re accountable for the other three quarters. Your imagination is currency in this play… .”


Oct. 3 → 21

Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St.,
San Francisco

”Men on Boats”

Oct. 31 → Dec. 16

The Strand, 1127 Market St.,
San Francisco