A white human rights lawyer becomes cynical about his career


Through Sept. 29

Tickets are $25


Actors Theater of San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F.

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The new millennium provided an impetus for many playwrights to create "millennial plays," a couple of which assess race relations in America through white main characters who think they're liberal but are really racists. Rebecca Gilman's award-winning Spinning Into Butter appears on the Peninsula later this season, but Actors Theater of S.F. snags the West Coast premiere rights to (and presents only the third production in the U.S. of) Canadian George F. Walker's Heaven, skillfully directed by Bill English. Jimmy (Brian Scott) is a white human rights lawyer turned cynic who has spent his career prosecuting corporations for unequal pay and cops for shooting blacks without cause -- the latter of which gets him into trouble with one corrupt cop, Karl (James Palermo). Jimmy started his career with seemingly good intentions, but now views his work as "separating the real thing from the whining" (of minorities). His attitude estranges him from his Jewish wife, Judy (Susi Damilano), who falls in love with her rabbi (Louis Parnell). Meanwhile Karl strong-arms a black drug dealer, Derek (Ricky Marshall), into doing some dirty work for him. In keeping each other in prescribed race roles, the characters brutally clash -- and many meet their ends violently. Though the dialogue is often cruel and the characters unsympathetic (as they should be), Walker adds absurdity with song-and-dance scenes set in a decidedly Christian heaven. Melanie Slivka, as heroin addict Sissy, brings humor and truthfulness to the role, passing through scenes while juggling, riding a unicycle, or walking on stilts in an attempt to "better herself." Indeed, Walker is asking tough questions about bettering oneself and about the motives behind good intentions, and these queries require the actors to live in the uneasy place between absurdity and honesty, which many of them don't do successfully. In most of Act 1 they err on the side of comedy, playing for laughs and not listening to each others' lines. This problem clears up in Act 2, especially in an authentically performed scene of hope between Parnell and Slivka. Though Walker undercuts this scene with a monologue by Jimmy that explains too concretely what the play is about (as if Walker didn't trust his own writing), this play is still more complex and better crafted than Gilman's.

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