In the beginning of George Saunders’ short story “Home,” published in The New Yorker in 2011, Mikey, a vet just returning from war in the Middle East, goes to visit his mother. Almost everything looks the same as he remembers, just like the old days, except for a water stain resembling a cat’s head on the wall above the fridge.
The delight of seeing a Word for Word production, in which the 30-year-old San Francisco company brings literary short stories to life onstage absolutely verbatim, is the imaginative ways in which the ensemble activates moments that, on the page, you might sail right by.
For example, in “Home,” the company’s first mainstage production since the pandemic began, actor Lisa Hori-Garcia poses, frozen, as that cat-faced stain throughout the scene between Mikey and his mother.
That’s just one among the many ways Word draws out the humor in just about any story, no matter how solemn: by inhabiting inanimate objects, by divvying up the dialogue among the different characters in ways that enhance the text and of course by casting actors (of varying ethnicities) who, with the help of insightful directors (such as, in this case, longtime core company member Sheila Balter), can find all sorts of nuances in their roles.
And who can navigate the minefield of that divvied-up narrative while keeping the story flowing.
When narrator Mikey (a tough but vulnerable Brian Rivera, slightly disoriented and riddled with shame and guilt) tries to reconnect with the people in his past, he’s a sympathetic figure—haunted by nightmare scenarios from the war, struggling to find a place for himself in this world again.
His sister, Renee (Hori-Garcia), has a new baby, whom Mikey is not allowed to hold. His wife has a new husband and Mikey’s not allowed to see his own kids. His mother (a wonderfully tough and funny portrayal by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) has so many problems of her own—she’s in the midst of being evicted from her house for not paying the rent—that she can’t offer Mikey the comfort he craves.
Then there’s Ma’s new partner, the good-natured compulsive liar Harris (Robert Ernst, absolutely hilarious, stumbling around in an undershirt, shorts and a hunter’s cap over a long gray ponytail), who only adds to Mikey’s sense of dislocation. “Harris don’t work,” explains Ma.
Others that Mikey encounters—Ma’s landlord, Ryan, clerks at a shop—intone by rote “Thank you for your service”; Ma claims her son is a silver medal war hero whenever it suits her purposes.
The uneasy look on Rivera’s face speaks volumes, and that’s how this company, at its best, can illuminate the words on the page, enrich the entire literary experience.
That’s not to say every story works as well, given this treatment, as any other. For the first 15 minutes or so of this compact hour-long show, the “he saids” and “she saids” feel obtrusive even if, like many fans, you’re used to Word’s methods. Saunders uses those words to create a certain rhythm on the page, a rhythm that seems awkward and unnecessary onstage.
And although the cast members move a few basic pieces of furniture around in graceful and clever ways for different scenes, it still feels like too much bustling around for such a short piece.
But the understated eloquence of Saunders’ text, the fine-tuned characterizations of the ensemble (which includes Norman Gee, Tre’Vonne Bell., Brennan Pickman-Thoon and Word cofounder/current artistic director JoAnne Winter), and the poignant portrayal of a war vet alienated in his own home, couldn’t be better.
Word for Word’s “Home” continues through April 29 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$65. Visit zspace.org/wfw-home.