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Missionary positions

by Jim Gladstone

diel (Gabriella Momah) and Chris (Megan Timpane) have a forbidden embrace, in playwright Hansol Jung's "Cardboard Piano" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
diel (Gabriella Momah) and Chris (Megan Timpane) have a forbidden embrace, in playwright Hansol Jung's "Cardboard Piano" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema  

It is New Year's Eve, 1999. In a small missionary church in civil war-torn rural Uganda, we meet Chris (Megan Timpane), the white American pastor's daughter, and Adiel (Gabriella Momah), a faithful member of the local congregation. There's been low-level anxiety about the Y2K virus, but the end of the world as these two young women know it is about to arrive in a far more virulent form.

In "Cardboard Piano," Hansol Jung's engrossing, idea-dense drama now playing the New Conservatory Theatre Center, the 16-year-old girlfriends are forced to face down a double-barreled homophobia, caught in the crosshairs of both evangelical Christianity and Ugandan society.

Having discovered the girls' affair, Chris' parents have hastily arranged to abandon their mission and bring their daughter back to the U.S. for saving. Adiel, still idealistic and unjaded about Jesus' love for all, can't quite understand this turn of events. Still, in a rush of illogical adolescent passion, the couple plans to flee before morning, to escape into a world that cooler heads would realize only exists in romantic fantasy.

A reality more concrete than either romance or religion soon comes crashing through the church door: Pika (Howard Johnson) is a soldier on the run from the warlord who snatched him from his village and forced him into military service.

He is bleeding profusely from his head and one ear, and Adiel immediately wants to tend to the boy's wounds. It's the Christian thing to do.

Chris turns her attention to Pika's psychic injuries: the young man has convinced himself he is an irredeemable sinner, doomed to hell for the atrocities he has executed under command. (In a production that deftly delivers several intentional moments of shock, the inadvertent one that comes when we're told that adult actor Johnson's Pika is supposed to be 13 years old is unfortunate.)

Rather than proffering the potential of religious redemption she no longer believes in, Chris tells a personal anecdote about believing that anything broken can be fixed. This story lends "Cardboard Piano" its awkward title. Still, in Pika's mind, he has been absolved in a church, by the preacher's daughter. He feels full of Christian love. And moments later, in an act of stunning violence, he perpetrates Christian hatred.

The head-spinning violence that concludes Act I of "Cardboard Piano" leads to gut-wrenching revelations. Act II is a believably organic but completely surprising continuation of the plot that takes place 14 years later. Playwright Jung's unexpected twists are ingenious, disturbing and theatrically thrilling.

Director Tom Bruett and his team have pulled off an ambitious feat here. Cast members Momah and Dane Troy, who each play two roles, are utterly convincing in each. And while Johnson's casting as Pika feels questionable, his second-act transformation yields one of the play's most touching and believably vulnerable characters.

Devin Kasper's phenomenal African set and Mike Post's three-dimensional sound design — full of cricket chirps, lightning strikes, rainfall and gunfire — envelop the audience in the small 75-seat auditorium, tangling them into the intimacies and betrayals of this powerful tale.

"Cardboard Piano" plays the New Conservatory Theatre Center through Dec. 2. Tickets: ($28-$49): (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org

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