Until I saw Steal Heaven the other day at San Diego Repertory Theatre, I’d almost forgotten how much I like “Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder’s greatest non-hit. The 1973 tune, part of the pre-show music bed, has a short sketch about a black guy who gets 10 years for a drug crime he didn’t commit; a dirge-like take on racial oppression peppers either side of the dialogue, its unsettling time signature and steamy legatos fueling the point as only the brilliant Wonder can.
Music, in fact, plays an important role in Steal Heaven. If you’re old enough, ’60s charters like The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and The Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” will jar your memory, as will the saga of Abbie Hoffman, the unflappable lefty and self-appointed champion of the oppressed, who said before his death in 1989 that the succeeding generation of iconoclasts has “designer brains” and “the only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon.” Writer Herbert Siguenza’s ode to those glorious days beyond recall may ring a bit above those of a certain age, but he’s got Hoffman down-pat as a poor man’s St. Peter here, and the very good stylized acting in this world premiere follows suit.
Trish Lazaro is a protest junkie, declaring that “you’re not paying attention” if you’re not opposed to just about everything. She’s “accidentally” killed by a White House security guard for her trouble, and her unlikely credentials (gay wife and mom, Iraq vet) follow her to limbo, with pepperpot Hoffman in charge of the next step – grooming Trish for Jesus’ role back on earth. He’s delighted with her moxie and irreverence but wary of her grasp on the importance of protest in his day; only when she reveals a tragedy from her wartime past does his reluctance abate, amid a lesson or two in true commitment to unpopular views.
The story rings true because Abbie and Trish are basically good and committed people, all the more interesting amid their tough, cocky exteriors. Their roily iconoclasm complements Mark Pinter’s very nice stylized turns, notably as God (the George Burns variety); Julia Child, whose boeuf refuses to stay on her plate; Timothy Leary, whose acid-laced cookies are the hit of the show for Abbie and Trish; and Steve Jobs, whose bullshit detector leaves no corporate stone unturned. (Presumably, a hit or two of LSD would make some of these figures “materialize” by default; who am I to argue?)
Abbie puts a big-time whuppin’ on Richard Nixon in one scene, and Ronald Reagan is now a lowly pizza deliveryman; these turns seem ingratiating and hastily conceived, and Trish’s confession about her experiences in war would have been more effective with a heavy dose of detachment. But Siguenza’s Abbie and Summer Spiro’s Trish are made for each other, the characters’ physicality at once a competition and a collaboration. The action is well embellished with Victoria Petrovich’s projections of stuff like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, memorabilia from the Chicago 7 trial and the LSD-fueled visuals. The other tech efforts rise to the occasion accordingly.
As a co-founder of Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash, Siguenza has been a major proponent of stage-based protest for more than 30 years. His vast experience shows here, and he and co-helmer Todd Salovey are in their elements as Hoffman reminds us from the grave that Constitution-fueled differences within the American experience, no matter their roughness of edge, are never out of style.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Jan. 11. Steal Heaven runs through Jan. 25 at the Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $31 and up. 619-544-1000, sdrep.org.