Harkening back to the golden era of small theater in San Francisco when talented people with minimal resource and in tiny venues produced fascinating and potent world premieres, we now have "444 Days."
It is the work of Torange Yeghiazarian, founding artistic director of San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions (http://www.goldenthread.org), a native of Iran and of Armenian heritage, long active on the local theater and academic scene.
The play opened Golden Thread's 18th season on Saturday in Z Below, a 77-seat venue, formerly the home of the Traveling Jewish Theater.
The title refers to the number of days American diplomats were held captive in Tehran in 1979. The play, about an former American hostage (Harry) and one of the revolutionaries (Laleh), takes place in a Stanford hospital, 25 years after the embassy takeover.
In Yeghiazarian's excellent writing, with Bella Warda's inconsistent direction (needs tightening up), as the play goes back and forth between the two periods, a complex, intriguing story develops about the diplomat/spy and the woman who later became an important figure in the Iranian government.
The writer manages to unfold layers of both what happened between them in Tehran and of the cat-and-mouse game in the present, focusing on Hadyeh, Laleh's daughter, who is in coma, near death. The two are at Stanford - with a protesting crowd outside - seeking a treatment of last resort for Hadyeh.
The less said about the gyrating twists and turns the better, but it will not be a spoiler to say that Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt is amazing as she spends an hour in coma in center stage, then gives a brief monologue about her thoughts and returns to immobility.
The best performance in the cast comes from Sheila Collins as the caring, wisecracking, street-smart nurse, Olivia. She represents "public opinion" with simple, level-headed realism. She has the best lines in the play, and delivers them in an unselfconscious, endearing manner. She is comfortable in her skin, something not completely true about the leading characters.
The two main roles are played by Jeri Lynn Cohen (Laleh) and Michael Shipley (Harry). Both have a difficult challenge portraying opaque characters whose actions are rarely obvious (which means good writing), either because they are hiding something or try to mislead.
Shipley manages the task better, his silences and hesitations are mostly believable. Cohen's tentative behavior at times doesn't match the character's supposed background and power.
The play ends with a shocking, powerful twist, somewhat sudden, lacking preparation/foundation, but still thought-provoking and memorable.