The personal cost paid for both passivity and action are weighed in Adam Bock’s “The Shaker Chair,” which premiered at the 2005 Humana Fest and has now been co-produced by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players and San Francisco’s Encore Theater Company. Had it been more conventionally drawn, this might have seemed a simple, even pat treatment of one woman’s unlikely odyssey from complacency to activism. But Bock’s quirky character dynamics and unexpected narrative leaps lend the one-act an expansive heft that’s somewhat startling for a piece that runs just 70 minutes.
James Faerron’s scenic design — plain beige wall with entrance doorway and two significant chairs — sets the slightly surreal tone, abetted by Heather Basarab’s more changeable lighting.
Marion (Frances Lee McCain) is a middle class, fiftysomething widow and neatnik who enthuses about her newly acquired classic wooden chair. Admiring the industriousness of the Shakers, she admits its stiff-backed, cushion-free economy is “not very comfortable.” Instead, it produces the agreeable feeling, “Whoop! I should get up and do something.”
Such thoughts are wasted on Marion’s terminally self-absorbed girly-girl sister, too aptly named Dolly (Nancy Shelby). Latter is in tearful retreat from loutish husband Frank (Will Marchetti), after learning he’s been having an extramarital affair.
A whiny perpetual victim who seems to enjoy suffering as much as she resents it, Dolly is the stereotypical helpless-female apotheosis of “Romance (as) the opiate of the masses.” Or so Marion’s best friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth) puts it, with no patience for such drama.
Stopping by to borrow her pal’s car, Jean has an urgent errand to run: Sabotaging a pig farm whose waste poisons the local water supply. Worrying she’s become “too careful” with life itself, reluctant Marion lets Jean talk her into riding along. The fusty heroine is soon giddy with excitement after tasting a little danger and good-cause criminality.
But her buzz turns sour when she realizes Jean, plus younger compadres Lou (Marissa Keltie) and Tom (Andrew Calabrese), set the farm’s guardhouse on fire. They swear no one was hurt, animal or human — but Marion can’t stomach being involved with anything “destructive and violent and dangerous.” Cynical 15-year-old Lou grouses that radicals like herself “wouldn’t have to smash things if people like you did something.”
Meanwhile, there’s Dolly — pink-clad, scared of aging, easily manipulated by her spouse in a squirmingly fine-tuned late scene. (“You need to learn to forgive,” he badgers her after being caught out as a second-time cheat.)
Bock (“The Thugs,” “The Receptionist”) has a familiar message: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It’s a question of being “alert” (as the totemic Shaker chair’s historical philosophy encourages) vs. “sleepwalking.” But his writing — running fleet through successively briefer scenes — seldom makes that outcome obvious. The characters are sharply drawn, yet all have intriguingly ambiguous aspects.
Even if Bock’s staccato Pinter/Mamet-minimalist dialogue at times grows excessively mannered, director Tracy Ward’s superb ensemble of veteran Bay Area actors and a couple newbies grok every line and pause.