Family ties & binds

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 3, 2015
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Susi Damilano plays a Southern woman who unnerves a half-brother,<br>played by Carl Lumbly, with their father's recently discovered letters, in<br><i>Tree</i> at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo:<br>Jessica Palopoli
Susi Damilano plays a Southern woman who unnerves a half-brother,
played by Carl Lumbly, with their father's recently discovered letters, in
Tree at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo:
Jessica Palopoli

There is a popular BBC series, and a less-popular American copy, titled Who Do You Think You Are? that solicits celebrities for exhaustive genealogy explorations that end with big "reveals" and the celebrity in tears. It's a concept that combines exhibitionism, voyeurism, and exploitation, and it seems madness to me to put oneself through this kind of public spectacle. But take away the showbiz trappings, celebrity baggage, and predictable outcomes, and you might end up with a surprising family portrait like Julie Hebert's Tree now at San Francisco Playhouse.

The play at first seems to smack of predictability, but that is deceptive, with tables turning right up to the end. Tree opens with a Louisiana woman arriving in Chicago (apparently by pirogue, more on that later) carrying a suitcase full of epistolary family skeletons. Following the death of her father, a bitter Southern bigot, she's knocking at the door of a black family to share her discovery of shared lineage. The man who answers the door passionlessly accepts that she's his half-sister, but has no interest in developing any sort of familial bond. And he is adamantly opposed to letting this woman speak with his ailing, addled mother, who had a forbidden relationship with the woman's father before he married a white woman and had the daughter who is now forcing her way into their lives.

Leo is a divorced steakhouse chef, and his widowed mother was once a schoolteacher. He is suspicious of Didi's intentions, and Didi doesn't seem at all sure of what they are, either. "Your father was a sad footnote in my mother's otherwise dignified life," says Leo, who is sure Didi is a lesbian " not that there is anything wrong with that. But intentions come into focus and family trees need to be transplanted as Hebert peels away the mysteries in scenes that seldom go where you expect, but feel unnervingly true when they arrive at their actual destinations.

Jon Tracy directs the play with a steady, knowing hand as emotions head back to the top of a rollercoaster just when you think they are in a straightaway. Nina Ball's set made up of a vast array of brown-paper packages tied up with string and strewn with love letters is an impressive sight, though the aforementioned pirogue at the center of the stage apron is an odd contrivance meant to evoke the Louisiana bayous, as Didi is in it when she arrives in Chicago, and repairs there when she's not in a scene, as if it were an amphibious Motel 6. It's also an obstacle for other cast members who must step over it as if it didn't exist.

The cast, however, is quite wonderful. Carl Lumbly plays Leo with an intense resignation disguising a disappointing life. Susi Damilano is both a sweet-talking Southern gal and a possessed hellion determined to tear her way to the truth. As Leo's largely bedridden mother, Cathleen Riddley has the most demanding and daring role, as she careens from sweet lucidity to a foul-mouthed, pistol-packin' mama. Tristan Cunningham brightly completes the cast as Leo's easy-going daughter.

Tree at first wants you to think it is a play about race relations, when it is really about relationships that go beyond race. Louisiana native Hebert was a San Francisco playwright years ago, before finding steady work as a television writer. It's good to have her back.


Tree will run at San Francisco Playhouse through March 3. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 677-9596 or go to