A.C.T.’s fantastic ‘Gloria’ explores who can rightfully own a tragedy

NOTE: The final live performance of American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Gloria” took place on Wednesday, March 11th before being canceled from Covid-19 policies. The show, along with the company’s production of “Toni Stone” are available for streaming through April 5. A link is posted at the bottom of this post.
The following review is from my live viewing of the show.

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(L to R) Miles (Jared Corbin) looks on as Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) and Ani (Martha Brigham) sneak at glance at their co-workers manuscript in the A.C.T. production of “Gloria.” (Kevin Berne photo)

Who is the rightful owner of a tragedy?

Is it the person who witnessed the tragedy with all its painful, gory details? Does blood have to splatter on the clothing of the witness for maximum, rightful hurt? Or is it the person who saw nothing, living the rest of their life without closure and questions that will never be answered?

In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins scintillating and searing play “Gloria,” there is no clear answer. Produced by American Conservatory Theater and now streaming online through April 5, “Gloria” is glorious in its compelling banality and humor, searing itself in a few harrowing seconds as the first act comes to a close.

The enigmatic Gloria (Lauren English) comes into work at the Manhattan magazine office the morning after throwing a party, widely considered the mother of all bombs. Only Dean (Jeremy Kahn) showed up to the festivities, ending up engaging in the excess free booze that adorned Gloria’s living room. On this morning, a properly hung-over Dean gives it his best shot at putting lipstick on a party pig, but Gloria ain’t no fool. Dean’s love for libations isn’t a fair trade for a prior evening of awkward loneliness, revels that no other co-workers bothered to show for.

While Gloria escapes in the suffocating office, clearly embarrassed by her attempt to share a celebration of her new digs with work acquaintances, others move on with their morning. There is Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah), an Asian American woman who is accused by her office mates of using her culture as convenience, living a life of shallow glitz and Ivy League glamour. In addition to Kendra, Ani (Martha Brigham) jams herself with a busy desk and playbills adorning her tack wall. Ani always provides quirky charm, immediately thrown into a tragedy as the news of singer Sarah Tweed passing on hits the workers.
This event immediately gives them some purpose as they sing songs and reflect on a lost part of their youth. Sarah Tweed functions as nostalgia, a time in their lives when mediocre music filled the soul.

One who can’t relate to this generational loss is the intern Miles (Jared Corbin), who immediately ages everyone by asking a simple question – “Who is Sarah Tweed?” Miles enjoys making copies while blaring classical music in his headphones, and those who have jobs in the ultra-competitive Metropolis magazine world fret when Miles gets a goodbye meeting with the big boss Nan. Might she be promising the young upstart Miles a job in the near future after his schooling is done? Might it be one of their jobs that is now in peril?

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Head fact-checker Lorin (Matt Monaco) constantly enters the main office to quiet things down. (Kevin Berne photo)

The play moves along in humorous ways that capture the minutiae of folks who work in close quarters, a sharp set designed by Lawrence E. Moten III. The workers have their differences, but bond well when head fact-checker Lorin (Matt Monaco) from down the hall occasionally enters the office to ask the wild bunch to quiet things down. One who avoids that wrath is Kendra, who is on one of her many Starbucks runs.

In a matter of seconds, the play goes from compelling and humorous to harrowing and uncomfortable. With the brilliant strokes of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play which is masterfully painted onto the stage by director Eric Ting, the temperature of the play heats up exponentially. Two distinct styles of storytelling combine to tell one comprehensive narrative.

As the story unfolds, we experience the collateral damage of how each of these characters is affected. We see Dean and his survivor’s trauma in full focus – a bit hairier, much more worrisome and struggling to make any connections. A meeting at Starbucks with ruthless Kendra has disastrous consequences, a woman who expresses her own viewpoints as to how the tragedy affected her despite her absence on that awful day.

The play’s brilliance is open-ended, never answering any of its many disturbing questions, leaving the audience to process so much. Each of the characters takes a turn at being the bad actor, people who use their trauma to excuse awful behaviors, often bowing down to capitalism and greed. And in some of the saddest poetry the play provides, we are left to reconcile the idea that any tragic moment has a short shelf life because worse tragedy is around the corner. Only the latest in horrific, heartbreaking headlines takes precedence.

The story is powerfully unified by the talented cast who grip and grind as they play multiple roles. And ultimately, our tragic solitude which affects us differently is shown to us in a perfect, metaphoric tableau as the play comes to a close.

With each national tragedy that fells upon us, moments that should connect the disjointed often lead to moments that isolate and splinter. Sadly, the pain can sometimes only soften when noise-canceling headphones remove everyone from our lonely, lonely world.

WHAT TO KNOW

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco presents “Gloria”
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Eric Ting
Stars: 5 out of 5
The final live performance took place on Wednesday, March 11th.
Streaming is available online through April 5th.
Tickets for purchase available through April 3rd before midnight.
Tickets for the stream start at $15
For streaming of “Gloria” and “Toni Stone,” visit www.act-sf.org

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