Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Playwright tells 'How I Learned What I Learned'


Steven Anthony Jones portrays playwright August Wilson. (Jenny Graham)


            August Wilson (1945-2005) was one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

He’s best known for his 10-play cycle chronicling the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century. However, in his autobiographical “How I Learned What I Learned,” co-conceived with Todd Kreidler, he harks back to his formative years in the mostly Black Hill District of Pittsburgh. Most of the plays in the cycle are set there, too.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this one-man show is performed by Steven Anthony Jones. He embodies the young person who quit high school at 16 but haunted the library, immersing himself in books.

He takes us through Wilson’s first menial jobs and his struggle to pay his rent. He also talks of Wilson’s various romantic interests, starting in seventh grade and continuing through to his marriage. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, serves as costume designer, dramaturg and creative consultant for this production.

Racism is a pervasive theme. In the opening scene, Jones as Wilson wears a black T-shirt reading “I am supposed to be white” on the front and slyly says it would suit Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In another, he talks about the difficulty of cashing a check at a Los Angeles bank, where the teller told him she didn’t have any envelopes after finally giving him his cash. A few weeks later, he cashed a check and got an envelope from a different clerk with no hassle.

Wilson describes the numerous characters he befriended and speaks lovingly of his mother.

Nina Ball’s set (lit by Xavier Pierce) is dominated by a monolithic brick wall that serves as a screen for projections designed by sound designer Rasean Davonté Johnson.

This production is directed by former TheatreWorks artistic director Tim Bond, now in the same position at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

It runs about an hour and 45 minutes without intermission. Though it could benefit from careful pruning, it offers fascinating, often amusing insights into Wilson’s early life.

“How I Learned What I Learned” continues through Feb. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts,” 500 Castro St. After that it will go on a Bay Area tour for a week.

            For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit  

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Palo Alto Players stage riveting 'Misery'


Paul  (Christopher Mahle) wakes up in Annie's (Maria Marquis) home. (Scott Lasky photo)

Misery is not only the name of a popular novelist’s heroine but is also the situation in which he finds himself in “Misery,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

In William Goldman’s stage adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, writer Paul Sheldon (Christopher Mahle) wakes up in the home of Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis) after a horrendous car accident in snowy Colorado in 1987. Serious injuries have left him in great pain and unable to walk.

When Annie, who repeatedly calls herself his No. 1 fan, learns that her favorite character, Misery Chastain, has died in his next novel, she badgers him to write a sequel in which Misery has somehow survived.

Realizing that his fate lies in the hands of the increasingly unstable and menacing Annie, he starts to work on that sequel.

As her mental state continues to decline, violence ensues. For Paul it’s a life or death struggle.

The other character in the play is the sheriff, Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck), who stops by occasionally to see if Annie knows anything about Paul’s disappearance. She plays innocent.

Director Kimberly Ridgeway elicits the emotional nuances and calculations of the two principal characters. She also brings out the humor, which alleviates  some of the tension.

The plot has some unanswered questions, such as how Annie, a former nurse, has managed to obtain all of the medical supplies and devices that Paul needs. There are other holes, but revealing them would reveal some of the play’s devious twists.

Otherwise, all three actors fully inhabit their characters, making them believable in this unbelievable situation.

Complemented by Edward Hunter’s lighting, Gillian Ortega’s set design uses a turntable to revolve from the bedroom to the living room and the kitchen.

The sometimes ominous sound is by Samuel Fiedel with costumes by Greet Jaspaert. Dave Maier is the fight coordinator.

Because violence, obscenities and other factors give the play an R rating, Palo Alto Players says it’s not appropriate for anyone under 17. Others are likely to enjoy this riveting drama. 

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “Misery” will continue through Feb. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit