by Carol Rocamora
The graceful Golden Gate Bridge stretches across the San Francisco Bay, a steel marvel connecting two shores. But it’s not a shining symbol for the young protagonist in Christopher Chen’s haunting new play, The Headlands, now holding audiences spellbound at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater. For Henry, that bridge represents a perilous path, beckoning him into a dark past and a family tragedy occurring twenty years ago that still haunts him.
Henry, an affable young engineer (Aaron Yoo) of Chinese descent and a Bay Area resident, introduces himself at the top of the play, apologizing for what he’s about to tell us. He’s an amateur sleuth, you see, and he is intent on solving the mystery of his father’s murder.
Playwright Chen is a sly storyteller, and the mystery unravels with many twists, turns, and blind alleys. Henry enlists his girlfriend Jess (a charming Mahira Kakkar) to help solve the yet-unsolved case, which leads them deep into the past and a secret his parents had guarded for decades. In a series of flashbacks (his mother is deceased, as well), we meet his parents – his inscrutable father George (Johnny Wu) and his adoring mother Leena (Laura Kai Chen).
Mid-investigation, cracks appear in the image of his parents’ seemingly perfect marriage. George and Leena came from different classes. When they met – in the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate – he was a Chinese immigrant working as a dishwasher, she was second-generation Chinese from an affluent family that disapproved of George. As Henry learns from Leena’s best friend Pat (Mia Katigbak), they suffered a separation early in their marriage, and it is at that moment of revelation that Henry makes a devastating discovery (no spoiler alert) that leads him to solve the case.
The power of the storytelling lies not only in Chen’s script, but also in Knud Adams’s clever direction on Kimie Nishikawa’s bare stage. The scenery consists of Ruey Horng Sun’s fabulous projections, flashing on the blank upstage and side walls, always in flux. The images appear and recede like memory and truth, as Henry relentlessly pursues his path. What does he see? Was it true? What did he learn? The images are mesmerizing, propelling the story forward to its stunning conclusion.
As for the multi-cultural cast, once again LCT 3 should be commended for its diversity in play choice and opportunity for new theatre artists (see also Power Strip earlier this season).
This gripping family tale transcends the confines of social drama (class, immigration), and reaches for the universality of family stories from mythology (again, I dare not name them for fear of spoiling the ending). So the Headlands – that hilly peninsula in Marin County, visible from the Golden Gate, projected during the play – represent an undiscovered country across the bridge of life’s journey toward self-knowledge … mysterious, dangerous, and transforming in its revelations.
Photos: Kyle Froman
The Headlands by Christopher Chen, directed by Knud Adams, at Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow (LCT 3), now through March 22 – running time, 90 minutes