The Play's The Thing: Dennis Lehane's Live Leap Into Malicious, Murderous Hearts

Stacy Ross as Gina and Louis Parnell as a psychologist in "Coronado", which had its West Coast premiere on Saturday night at the San Francisco Playhouse.  (All photos by Zabrina Tipton/S.F. Playhouse)

Phillip K. Toretto as Hal, Kate Del Castillo as a younger Gina, and Will Springhorn, Jr. as Will, in Dennis Lehane's "Coronado", his first play after novels such as "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone".

Chad Deverman (right) as Bobby, and Bill English as Bobby's father, in Dennis Lehane's "Coronado" theater play, which is to be made into a motion picture within the next two or three years. 

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 24, 2008


Dennis Lehane's "Coronado" had its west coast premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse on Saturday, and the packed house in this intimate theater toasted its successful debut following the performance of the macabre drama of intersecting stories and people with histories that reveal a past haunted by pain, sex, murder and betrayal.  "Coronado" shifts effectively and seamlessly between the past, present and future, with Kate Del Castillo and Stacy Ross respectively playing a younger and older version of Gina, a woman haunted by the murder of her abusive spouse Hal (Phillip K. Toretto).  Gina's fate is inextricably tied to this event, and her lover Will (Will Springhorn, Jr.) has become increasingly unruly and unreasonable.  Will is also played in later years by Bill English, who also happens to be the artistic director of the Playhouse.  The pugnacious older Will has a son in Bobby, who is tortured by the loss of his endearing and excitable sweetheart Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer) and just needs to understand what on earth is happening.  Highly entertaining, tense, humorous and laced with lacerating truths and powerful explosions, "Coronado"'s two-act structure is tight and intricate, with the second act tying up all the loose ends.

The older, wiser and no less haunted Gina has been having an affair with a disaffected psychologist whose marriage has gone downhill.  Gina needs direction and closure but will she get it when all is said and done?

"Coronado" is riveting and entertaining, with a strong performance from Ms. Ross, who chews up the scenery and stamps her imprimatur all over the play.  She holds our interest on numerous levels; her energy is relentless, her anguish is palpable and her personality is both alluring and addictive.  Ms. Ross displays a sultriness that is magnetic.  Mr. English is a force of nature as the older Will, a punishing man who knows only one gear: pain.  He is motivated by nothing less.  

Other cast members hold their own and fare very well, but Ms. Ross and Mr. English are particularly memorable.  "Coronado" is directed on the stage by Susi Damilano, the producing director, who is also married to Mr. English.

Coronado is an actual town in San Diego, but there is nothing in Mr. Lehane's similarly-titled play to suggest that it is set there.  (Since the publication of this story, an e-mail sent to this writer by Ms. Damilano cited in part that "I believe Coronado refers to the Spanish treasure seeker who murdered thousands in his search for treasure.")  The production design and stage sets are decidedly threadbare (the cozy Playhouse holds a total of roughly 100 seats), with a bar decorated by florescence and neon signs for a beer and Highway Route 66.  There is a barren landscape, as if to illustrate an emptiness in the characters, or a clarity in the things that ail them.  There is a knife's edge atmosphere in act two, where the murkiness and mystery of these cracked souls suddenly explode with revelation and surprise, drawing the audience in deeper, minute by minute.

Mr. Lehane's first foray into theater is a huge success, and "Coronado" had its east coast premiere Off Broadway last year.  At a post-opening night performance food and wine reception at the S.F. Playhouse on Saturday, Mr. English said that "Coronado" would be made into a feature length motion picture.  No news was announced, he said, regarding just who would star in and direct the film, or when production would be expected to begin.  The movie rights for "Until Gwen", the play's original name, were purchased but beyond that it is unclear when the film will start rolling, Mr. English said.  Speculation would invite one to say that a "Coronado" film start could occur within the next two or three years. 

Mr. Lehane is known for his literary accomplishments with such novels as Mystic River, which was adapted into a Clint Eastwood-directed film that won acting Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in 2004, and Gone Baby Gone, adapted into the Oscar-nominated film directed by Ben Affleck.  Mr. Lehane's novel Shutter Island (which Mr. English and others connected to the Playhouse repeatedly called "Shelter Island"), is currently being filmed on location with Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio.  The film will be the third Lehane novel adapted into a feature film and is scheduled to be released in October of 2009.

"Coronado" will be at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 26, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm (with 3pm Saturday matinees).  For further information and tickets, call 415-677-9596.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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