Something’s not right with Angela (Atim Udoffia). She speaks with an aggressive edge and an aggrieved tone in her voice. Her pitch is tremulous and on the rise. Her lungs seem to be absorbing helium instead of oxygen. If you were sitting next to her agitated self on the bus or in a cafe, you’d move to another seat. When Angela barges into her brother and sister-in-law’s house — Tim (Khary L. Moye) and Hazel (Nia Fairweather) — her emotional fragility keeps flashing off and on like a bright red warning light.
She’s insistent about taking her nieces and nephews away for a holiday weekend with her husband Chuck (Adrian Roberts) and their own kids. Hazel’s puzzled and surprised by Angela’s sudden appearance, and by Tim’s refusal to stand up to his older sister. She stays wary and on guard — but gradually caves because she trusts her husband’s judgment.
Fairweather does an excellent job of registering her character’s dismay, but when she capitulates and lets her children go, the playwright, Kirsten Greenidge, betrays Hazel’s sound maternal instincts by discounting them. Hazel comes from a wealthy family, which has made life easier for her and Tim — whereas Angela and an unemployed Chuck are struggling to get by. This difference in their economic status, alongside Angela’s acutely felt class consciousness, is the only reason Zenith — at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, although it’s an SF Playhouse production — can punish an otherwise blameless Hazel.
The play hints at the origins of Angela’s neuroses but leaves them unexplored. It’s a Freudian psychodrama without any analysis. Angela and Tim talk about being abandoned by their mother, but we don’t find out why she left or what happened to their father. Adult Angela’s still furious with their mother, but their absent dad seems just as culpable a parent for neglecting them. The message underlying Zenith is: “Blame the mother!” Angela does so to her own detriment, eventually causing more harm than the woman she despises.
Chuck is the only one in this circle who’s aware of his wife’s potential for a breakdown. Last year, in Harold And The Boys at the Aurora Theater, Roberts had a quietly compelling supportive role. Here he’s been given the opportunity to show his expressive range. He plays a man whose frustrations are contained by his exhaustion and by what’s left of his fading tenderness for his troubled wife. After years of trying to appease her, he’s come to the conclusion that he can no longer reach her. When she arrives at their cabin with a minivan full of kids, he signals that their marriage is at an end.
Zenith concludes the way a television melodrama does — without any surprises. The heavy foreshadowing in this tragedy starts early and weighs the story down. Udoffia has one note to play, and though she plays it well, Greenidge has only fitted her character with manias. The playwright never provides the audience with another version of Angela, one that’s saner or more grounded. We need this comparison to evaluate Hazel and Tim’s ambivalent response to her.
It strains credulity that there were no warning signs of her odd behavior or of her ongoing heated resentments. It feels implausible that a working woman, wife, mother and sister — surrounded by a community — wouldn’t just snap like this without someone in her life asking even once, “Are you all right?” and waiting for her response.
Zenith, an SF Playhouse production at A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., through Sept. 10. Tickets from $20; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org.