When director Jon Tracy first read the script for Terminus, Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe's dark and lyrical story which has its American premiere at the Magic Theatre, his biggest challenge was having little context for how to put together the tag-team monologues by the three unnamed characters.
"I led with passion to figure it out and find the right group of people to spelunk through it," he says. "And it helped to have a nice dialogue with Mark by phone and email and that he was able to come to rehearsal for a few days."
O'Rowe had directed Terminus himself at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, but Tracy says the playwright was the opposite of controlling about his work.
"It wasn't intimidating because of the way Mark set up the conversation," Tracy says. "He said he'd directed the version he'd wanted to do, and he was much more interested in what someone else would do, and the only thing I could do wrong was try and replicate his. That was like instant freedom."
Terminus has three characters -- A, B, and C -- who tell intersecting, difficult, sometimes brutal stories: Stacy Ross as A of answering a help line and recognizing the voice of an old student who wants to end her pregnancy at eight or nine months; Marissa Keltie as B of an attraction for the first time in years that leads to a risky situation and a betrayal at a construction site; and Carl Lumbly as C, a painfully shy man who has made a deal with the devil and takes his rage out on women.
Lumbly, who most recently appeared on the stage in SF Playhouse's production of The Motherfucker with the Hat, says, like Tracy, he found the play challenging as well as thrilling. O'Rowe's language, which has internal rhyme, caught him.
"When I read this, I just thought it was phenomenal, very muscular," he says. "It was musical. Almost like Ellington to me in that it was classical, but so far ahead of its time."
Lumbly, a regular in TV (Cagney and Lacey, Alias, Southland) and movies (Everybody's All-American, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, South Central, Pacific Heights, To Sleep With Anger) enjoyed being on Magic's stage with a live audience.
"I like the immediacy of it, and I like the danger of it," he says. "I like the necessity of being in that moment in the present and having to let go of whatever came before it."
Having had close relationships with his mother, sisters, and wife, Lumbly had a hard time playing a man so angry with women. He looked to his profession to help him understand his character's isolation and the bargain he makes with the devil for a beautiful singing voice so he can charm.
"As a theater actor you make a decision, and you might go into some areas where your chance of making money might be greater, and you will fight for the rest of your career to get back to those experiences that made you want to act in the first place," he says. "You might make the bargain with the expectation that you would get a chance to show the world what you feel is your essential gift, and being denied that can twist you up. I know a lot of people more talented than I am who don't act right now because they met with that sledgehammer of rejection that can occur in film and TV."
Terminus and its actors have gotten rave reviews as potent, brilliant, and spellbinding. All of them stay on stage for the entire play on a set of dark gravel, not interacting with one another. Tracy says for him and the actors these constraints were enjoyable and made it all about the words.
"Nothing is worse for an artist than limitless options," Tracy says. "I just really trusted the language. If you work on the stillness of the physical vessel the language is dropping like seeds into the audience's heads and they create the images."
Tracy says Ross, Keltie, and Lumbly made this work with their performances.
"Almost anyone could memorize these long monologues with enough time," Tracy says. "But they internalized them and made them part of their bone and tissue and muscle structure."
This was Lumbly's first time performing at the Magic, and he and Tracy (who directed the acclaimed Any Given Day there last year) both commented on the warmth and professionalism there.
Tracy, who has worked as a director and playwright at many Bay Area theaters and throughout the country, says Terminus has the ability to grab the audience and not let them go.
"To have theater that truly moves you is simple but rare," he says. "It's unabashed and unafraid, and that's what we're going to the theater to see. It invigorates us. I can't come up with enough adjectives and verbs at this moment about the wonder and awe that we can make such a dark play so beautiful."
Terminus plays at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Third Floor, through June 16. Tickets are $20-$60. For more information, call 441-8822 or visit magictheatre.org.