Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Fred's Diner" ☼ ☼ ☼

Though the diner has an American theme, with a red-stooled counter, posted menu of burgers and hot dogs and jukebox filled with Buddy Holly and James Brown, Fred's Diner's actual location is somewhere off a motorway in working class England. Class distinctions pervade every action, as author Penelope Skinner paints a bleak pastiche of longing, abuse and impossible dreams. A disappeared America from the 1950s is only a metaphor here, because none of these characters is going anywhere.

We love Heather, the "older" waitress played by Julia McNeal, who has been passed over for promotion by Fred (Donald Sage Mackay). Fred wants Chloe (Jessi Campbell), who is young and pretty, to have the job, even though Chloe's only qualification appears to be a calculating smile. Meanwhile, Fred's daughter Melissa (Katharine Chin) has but one dream, which is to run away from the diner and enroll at Oxford. But she is tethered to caring for her father, as her mother appears to have disappeared some years before, incomprehensibly leaving Melissa with lecherous, drunken Fred. Rounding out the cast are Sunny, played by Terry Lamb as a customer of the diner, and Greg (Nick Day), a local kid with no hopes at all.

It's a terrific opening freeze frame, as Heather sits motionless at the counter holding a baseball bat while Fred lies in a puddle of pooling blood on the floor. The ending is not quite as simple as it seems, as we work backwards in time to see how things have gotten to this point.

"Fred's Diner" discusses difficult topics worthy of exploration. But we have little motivation to hang our hats on Fred or Melissa, he an overbearing drunk and she a young girl with a telescoped secret. Sonny is a bore, Greg has no chance and Chloe is clueless and self-involved. So, as the show develops, we root for Heather, the only person who seems to understand right from wrong. In the end, Melissa does take a decisive step, but we have a feeling not much is going to change.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Fred's Diner" Three Stars. Erik Flatmo's set design and Stephen Strawbridge's lighting help us follow the numerous stop frames. It's the simple things that work so well at Fred's -- like the look on Sunny's face when Heather takes his hand.

"Fred's Diner"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Oct 11

Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley

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