Christopher Chen Creates a Complex Mystery
by Patricia L. Morin
“The Headlands” captures us in an inventive murder mystery that intertwines a dysfunctional Asian American family with questionable memories of a burglary gone wrong. Playwright Christopher Chan cleverly splits his play into the impact of the father’s death and the unreliability of remembrances. How do we fill in the gaps between repressed memories and the truth?
Phil Wong, as affable Henry, the narrator, speaks directly to the audience, introducing himself as an insecure Google worker and an amateur sleuth. Henry re-examines the case of his father’s death, labeled a burglary. He decides to investigate along with his energetic and caring girlfriend, Jess (Sam Jackson), who helps him with the cases.
Scenic and Projections Designer Alexander V. Nichols’ commanding and circling stage set, featuring a convincing Sunset District house is magnificent. Along with his video work, they are stars of the play in their own right. The house’s white painted strips of lathe and plaster fill the stage and our imaginations.
Images splash across the walls as the set swings smoothly from a simple light-colored kitchen, and a stairway to a huge, second-floor window, to the Marin headlands, and a steep hiking path. Impressive.
Henry discovers that his pensive businessman father George (intriguing Johnny M. Wu) was guilty of embezzling money. Shocked, he searches his memory for events that provide clues. He later wonders if his ambivalent mother Leena (elegant Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) is seeking to protect her beloved husband’s reputation. Or is she covering up something that Henry cannot fathom?
Chen repeatedly flashes us back to the scene of a heated argument between mother and father that Henry slowly recalls. Each time the mystery deepens and unfolds with new revelations, new perceptions. With Henry, we experience each new surprise.
For Henry, this mental struggle feels like “a bird sending a song across the forest to a lost mate trying to call her back.” Can he retrieve the truth from the nooks and crannies of his mind and find clues to solve the case?
The moods of the play and scene transitions are beautifully illuminated by Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao.
Henry becomes obsessed with investigating each thread of evidence. He gathers information from Older Leena, and Leena’s emotional friend Pat (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro). George’s business partner Walter and the smart-ass Detective (Charles Shaw Robinson), and mysterious Tom (dynamic Jomar Tagatac) add important twists to the enigma.
We slowly discover Henry’s “truth.” If only his revelations had more emotional impact, we could feel more for the characters. The plot could move along more quickly. Wong, as both observer and participant, diminishes the empathy I feel for Henry as the son.
Director Pam MacKinnon retains our interest in the action of the mystery. The syncopated rhythm and sporadic remembrances resemble the pace by which we think. The actors do a good job with Chan’s complex script and the quick scene changes.
“The Headlands” unveils the fragility of our memories and provokes lively conversation long after the play is over—worth the experience.
“The Headlands” by Christopher Chen, directed by Pam MacKinnon, scenic & projection design by Alexander V. Nichols, sound design by Leah Gelpe, by American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. Info: ACT-SF.org – to March 5, 2023.
Cast: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Sam Jackson, Charles Shaw Robinson, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Jomar Tagatac, Phil Wong, and Johnny M. Wu.
Banner photo: Johnny M. Wu, Phil Wong, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. Photos by Kevin Berne