Ashley Halfnight’s “The Resting Place” at the Magic Theatre
After 52 years, the Magic Theatre is still a strong voice in the ever rich Bay Area theater world. It brought us Sam Shepard among other great playwrights and continues with its current show, a world premiere of “The Resting Place” by Ashlin Halfnight.
A play about a very uncomfortable subject, for both the actors and the audience, “The Resting Place” is about a family drama with a kick. This Detroit, working-class white family is searching and disagreeing on where to inter of one of its members. Something very bad has happened to Travis, son and brother, but we don’t know what at the beginning. We know there is a sense of urgency and discord when a woman rushes into a living room with father, mother and sister to great her. There embrace mournfully to the noise of demonstrators outside the house.
Little by little we find out that Travis died by suicide and during his life he has committed heinous sins about which the angry crowd is protesting. You don’t know what he has done for quite a while but it is easy to piece together the story. One sister Annie (Martha Brigham) comes home from San Francisco where she is an environmentalist trying to save the world. Now she is destroying what is left of the family.
With fierce anger she greets the other sister Macy (Emily Radosevich), her father Mitch (James Carpenter) and tipsy mother Angela (Emilie Talbot). Annie is a take-charger who has been left out of the plans for Travis’s burial. She has lists of all the duties they should be performing now. But they want a quiet and hasty cremation in consideration of the circumstances (we don’t know what they are yet). Annie insists on a proper funeral and memorial ceremony even if their church won’t allow a burial for a suicide in its cemetery.
Annie is not going to take no for an answer as she berates the family for their passivity and bounds off to confront their family clergyman and the police who have kept records on her brother. She is used to activism because of her environmental work where she is always confronting protagonists. And she wants what she wants for her brother’s remains and they must find “The Resting Place” that is proper and dignified, ideally in the family plot next to their beloved grandfather.
Soon we find out the reason for the demonstrations outside. Travis was a pederast who raped 14 young boys when he was a counselor at a camp and a teacher. Annie refuses to listen to reason or accept the truth so her father Mitch brings Charles (Andrew LeBuhn), one of the damaged boys, to Annie to describe her brother’s actions in detail and tell how it has ruined his life. This visit causes a screaming fight among the family members, one that is so intense and moving but never, but almost, physically violent. This is one of the most extreme family disputes that I have ever seen on the stage.
Annie talks about Travis’s “soul” and how they should respect it. By merely cremating him and scattering his ashes in the wind they would negate the very existence of his “soul”. There is a fair amount of religious belief behind the ideas in this play.
The last scene is of the memorial service that they are finally able preform. In it the audience serves as the people at the church. The family mourners speak to us. This audience participation is becoming a familiar trope in the current Bay Area theater productions with the Berkeley Rep’s “Fairview” and Cal Performance’s “An Enemy of the People” also breaking down the fourth wall with the actors addressing and engaging the audience. It is becoming a bit hackneyed.
The abused teenager played by Andrew Le Buhn is a recent graduate of Tamalpais High School and now a student of theater at the College of Marin. In this role he is very believable. The family members plus Travis’ former boyfriend Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser) are all fine and experienced actors who make this play riveting. Playwright Halfnight poses many questions but offers no definitive answers. He wants you to think about you would act if a member of your family has committed heinous crimes.
The talented Brooklyn playwright Ashlin Halfnight has written several other works for stage and television for which he has won many awards. Jessica Holt’s direction here is excellent as is the creative team with Edward T. Morris as set designer, Shelby-Lio Feeney’s costumes, Sara Huddleston’s sound and Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting. With Loretta Greco at the helm of the Magic Theatre where she is Artistic Director, we always expect challenging new works. She does not disappoint.
“The Resting Place” runs at the Magic through November 4, 2018. www.magictheatre.org or 415 441 8822.