NCTC's 'we are continuous' — Ordinary people, extraordinarily wrought

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday October 31, 2023
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Devin A. Cunningham and Alicia Stamps in 'we are continuous' (photo: Lois Tema)
Devin A. Cunningham and Alicia Stamps in 'we are continuous' (photo: Lois Tema)

Among family members, conversations that sound plain on the surface can bubble under with contentiousness and complexity.

One of the most poignant moments in Harrison David Rivers' autobiographical "we are continuous," which opened at New Conservatory Theatre Center October 28, is a mother's reaction when her gay adult son, says "You don't have to worry about me."

She's furious with him.

Although Simon (Devin A. Cunningham) may — at least in part, at least consciously — intend his statement to be reassuring, his mother Ora (Alicia Stamps) senses a current of spiteful rejection: "I don't need you anymore."

And because she fears that she may deserve that rejection, Ora is furious with herself as well.

Ora and her husband Hoyt are devout Christians. Despite knowing that Simon is gay, they've strenuously avoided discussing either his sexuality or his relationships since he came out to them at 16.

After they refuse to attend Simon's wedding to his partner Abe (Walter Zarnowitz), their only child retaliates by cutting off all but the most rudimentary contact with them. Everyone ends up worse off.

Good people behave badly in "we are continuous." But Rivers writes with palpable empathy for each of his characters. He loves them and he makes it clear that they love each other, even when they're painfully at odds.

His swift 70-minute play is composed of overlapping, interlocking monologues through which Ora, Simon and Abe recall their lives together, revealing an ever-present past that will never be fully resolved.

Walter Zarnowitz, Devin A. Cunningham, and Alicia Stamps in 'we are continuous'
(photo: Lois Tema)  

A conspicuous absence
Shawn J West directs with seamless confidence, keeping the characters moving with the flow of their words and making it clear how intently they're listening to each other. An elegant in-the-round set by Isaac Fine and subtle, score-like sound design by Ray Archie deepen the sense of intimacy.

Cunningham and Stamps exude warmth through every moment of their storytelling,
And while the stories are similar to ones we've heard before, Rivers adorns them with enough distinctive details to keep them from feeling generic.

Ora recalls coming across an unfamiliar garment while doing teenage Simon's laundry — "I realized I had no idea whose underwear I'd just folded" — and remembers tenderly kissing his keloids after he's scarred by a violent attack.

Simon recounts the community's outrage when he, a Black boy, is cast as Atticus Finch in a high school production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." And he savors the memory of his mother's defiant rebuke to the school board.

Zarnowitz charms as Abe, a level-headed peacemaker, able to extend compassion to both mother and son when they can't manage to do so for each other.

What Rivers can't quite manage to do is make sense of his decision to not have Simon's father, Hoyt, be represented on stage.

The absence makes it easy for audiences to villainize him. But there are many indications in the others' stories that, despite Hoyt's strong religious faith and conservative machismo, he profoundly loves his wife and son. One wishes he were given a chance to say his piece and perhaps make his peace.

As nuanced as Rivers' writing can be, there's a further layer of complexity that he seems reluctant to fully grapple with here. The three-way embrace that ends the play is uncomfortably tidy.

The story of "we are continuous" demands to be continued.

'we are continuous,' through Nov. 26. $25-$65. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. (415) 861-8972.

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