Christopher Chen, who grew up in the Sunset District, got a hometown hero’s welcome at the premiere of his new noir-inspired mystery play, The Headlands, which opened Wednesday night at a packed A.C.T. Theater.
Like its writer and audience, the play is distinctly San Franciscan: Its protagonist and narrator, Henry (played by the brilliant Phil Wong), grew up in the Sunset’s Chinese American community and spent time with his father hiking through the titular Marin Headlands. Henry even introduces himself as a San Francisco native who’s a Google UX designer. “I know, I’m part of the problem,” he jokes with a wink and a nod to the knowing audience.
There are more nods to San Francisco’s classic sights and cinema, namely in the play’s beautiful set. Designer Alexander V. Nichols’ and artistic director Pam MacKinnon used a clever staircase and facade to bring a midcentury Sunset townhouse to life, with creative video projection to bring in the fog.
The projections also provide gritty, noir-style flashbacks of Henry’s childhood, which was interrupted at the age of 10 when his father, George (Johnny M. Wu), was murdered in a supposed home invasion gone wrong. When his elderly mother, Leena (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), dies in the present day, Henry, who now has a “side hustle” investigating cold cases and is dating another true crime buff, Jess (Sam Jackson), decides to find out what really happened.
Without giving too much away, Henry relives the past — literally, you get to watch Leena and George meet and fall in love at Land’s End, and later on, see their hushed discussions in Henry’s childhood kitchen — and discovers some long-hidden family secrets in the process.
“I think part of the magic of film on-stage is the fact that it can reformulate a space instantaneously, without a heavy set being lugged in and lugged out,” Chen told the Bay Area News Group. “That’s the nature of memory too, and the nature of how the central character is constructing his own realities that might be dashed in an instant with a new clue.”
In all of this, Henry grapples with the reliability of memories and what it means when the innocence of childhood is shattered. Now that he’s grown, he can recognize that his parents don’t just exist to be his parents — they’re full adults, who have their own faults and have made their own mistakes.
While the play deeply mines Henry’s mind revelations, there are other characters with seemingly equally interesting backstories that seem glossed over, like Jess and other family members. But this may just be a casualty of keeping the play relatively short, just an hour forty minutes with no intermission.
The Headlands succeeds in taking the San Francisco noir genre and making it personal and even humorous, thanks in large part to the talented cast and impressive stage design.
Top image: (L–R): Johnny M. Wu (George), Phil Wong (Henry), and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (Leena) in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Headlands, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 5, 2023. Photo credit: Kevin Berne