PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Compelling “Headlands” at ACT

By Barry Willis

An unsolved murder, a family mystery, and a personal existential crisis all combine in Christopher Chen’s The Headlands at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theatre through March 5.

Phil Wong stars as Henry, a self-described “thirty-something San Francisco native who works in tech.” Wong is confident and convincing, serving as the show’s narrator and principal character.

Sam Jackson (Jess) and Phil Wong (Henry) in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s “The Headlands”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

He comes onstage under full house lights, with the relaxed demeanor of a standup comedian, and introduces himself and the play’s primary backstory: the unsolved murder of Henry’s father George (Johnny M. Wu) some 20 years earlier, a deeply traumatic event in Henry’s young life.

…worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation…

Part memory play, part who-done-it, Henry’s tale moves back and forth in time, from his parents’ first meeting, to his pre-teen years when he and his dad would go hiking in the Marin Headlands, to the present, where he deals with his aging mother Leena (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), his girlfriend Jess (Sam Jackson), and his estranged older brother Tom (Jomar Tagatac), given up for adoption before Henry was born.

Other superb cast members include Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the younger Leena, and Bay Area theater veteran Charles Shaw Robinson in dual roles as Walter, George’s business partner, and as a San Francisco police detective. A brilliant bit of direction by ACT artistic director Pam MacKinnon and a brilliant bit of acting is George’s accent—early in the show, when he is a teenage immigrant and his future wife’s suitor, his pronunciation is thick, but later, as an adult, he’s become fully fluent and speaks a natural American dialect.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (Pat) and Phil Wong (Henry) in “The Headlands” performing at A.C.T. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The Headlands is a compelling story, made more compelling by Alexander V. Nichols’ combined set and projection designs. Nichols is the offstage superstar of this production. His elegant rotating set is a translucent lath-and-plaster construction that when illuminated with projections gives a ghostly appearance to everything from a Sunset district family home to a headlands hiking trail to San Rafael’s Canal district to the apartment shared by Henry and Jess.

Toward the tale’s conclusion, a slow, over-long scene between these two is the only dramatic road bump in an otherwise very good production. A judicious edit there, and in a couple other spots in the dialog would lift this show from “very good” to “great.” It’s worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation, regardless.


Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com



ProductionThe Headlands
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byPam Mackinnon
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThru March 5th, 2023
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $112
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!