“The House That Jack Built” at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Eric Chazankin
Beautiful “House” Built to Last
A charismatic, inspirational man of many talents – adventurer, novelist, newsman, activist, boxer, horseman, rancher –Jack London was a legend by the time he was 30. Over the past hundred-plus years his works have been translated into dozens of languages, making him arguably more famous overseas than in the US. He’s the quintessential California original, a San Francisco native who made his home in Oakland, and, ultimately, in his beloved Sonoma Valley. It was here that he chose to build his dream house of stone and redwood, a 15,000 square foot rustic retreat he called Wolf House. Weeks before he and his wife were to move in, the magnificent structure was destroyed by fire and left in ruins. Playwright Cecilia Tichi maintains that Jack’s house wasn’t just made of stone and wood, it’s a house constructed from his legacy, one that no fire can destroy.
Tichi, Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, published a book last year about London, a work seven years in the making, “Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America”. She had more to say about Jack and decided to try her hand at theatre. The result, “The House That Jack Built”, has its world premiere at 6th Street Playhouse, part of the local year-long celebration of London’s life and work. (“House” is being presented at the Studio Theatre in rotation with the one-man stage adaptation of London’s “The Call of the Wild” as part of 6th Street’s “Jack London Festival”.)
Tichi’s powerful, moving play was inspired by the fact that London, in his time, was battling the same injustices we are today. With contemporaries like Upton Sinclair, he used his fame, and his words, to help bring the nation’s attention to Gilded Age inequality. Tichi, recalling her youth where those with only a high school education could find middle-class security, watched as over the decades those opportunities slipped away. “It quietly enraged me”, she said, realizing that the country had entered a new Gilded Age. She saw London, one of the progressives of the early twentieth century, as a champion of justice and the working class. There was a need for that aspect of his life to be explored and celebrated, and it’s especially relevant today, in 2016, the centenary of his death.
“House” is a colorful living history of Jack and his times, not so different from our own. The story is faithful to the events and persons in his short but incandescent life, but it also has elements of mystery, with villains and heroes, weaving intrigue and intimacy with strong dramatic tension, nicely textured with affection and playful exchanges. Jack repeats what he feels to be truths about himself: “I’m a builder” – not just of houses, but of human rights. ”I’m a spender” – not just of his money, but also his energy, to improve the world. All the while, he doesn’t deny his fondness for drink, and says he often gets “a little jingled”.
Edward McCloud’s Jack is brilliant, brash, passionate, caring and vulnerable. His physical presence is the very man himself brought to life, capturing his essence right down to his distinctive haircut and charming swagger. A fast-talking public-relations man named Ivy Lee (James Rowan in a dual role) arrives, a shill for the “captains of industry” back east. He taunts Jack with the luxuries he now enjoys as a rich man; how can he possibly understand the common man? His suggestion for Jack to write a pro-business novel is dismissed with scorn by the novelist. Rowan gives Lee just the right amount of slickness mixed with southern charm. Lee retreats, only to re-emerge later on, the world’s rude and unwelcome intrusion on Jack’s private world just as it’s falling apart.
Elizabeth Henry gives a bright and tender performance as Charmian, Jack’s “Mate-Woman”, wife and close companion. She’s a strong, dynamic woman, an author in her own right and his perfect match. Even in their playfully idyllic relationship, they have occasional disconnects over expectations, and in one humorous scene they settle their score with boxing gloves.
The story recounts the events surrounding the night of Jack’s reunion with some old friends at a saloon in Oakland (it’s still standing); Martin Johnson, played by Matthew Cadigan, served on the crew of Jack’s yacht during a harrowing South Pacific voyage and is now bitter and disillusioned. Cadigan delivers the complex edginess of a former admirer struggling to control his anger and desire for payback. The rest of the cast offers strong support: Lito Briano and James Rowan as childhood friends, and Ben Harper in dual roles as the saloonkeeper and a farm hand.
However, the main focus of the story is Wolf House, Jack’s eager anticipation, and how the mysterious fire, just weeks before the Londons were to move in, affected Jack and Charmian. At the end, as they leave the smoldering ruins, a blacksmith’s anvil sounds, almost like a tolling bell…foretelling an even greater tragedy yet to come?
It’s a well-constructed narrative with dense, meaty dialogue and vivid characterizations by the skilled cast. Direction by Craig Miller is sensitive to audience viewpoint and keeps up the intensity, energy levels and pacing. Miller says his collaboration with the playwright, cast and crew was one based on mutual trust, especially at one point when he served as script doctor. He removed some lines of dialogue that he felt were not useful in the storytelling, with Tichi’s blessing.
The extensive research of dramaturg Nadja Masura was critical to the actors’ preparation and development of their roles. They were also able to visit Jack London Park in Glen Ellen, a rare opportunity, since most actors don’t get to touch the lives of their characters, even historical ones, so closely: the cottage where Jack and Charmian lived; their letters and personal belongings; all brought real life into the story for the actors.
The set by Jesse Dreikosen is compact and versatile. Photo enlargements of the architectural plans of Wolf House, and its charred remains, are mounted to panels upstage. There is a screen for projections that help set the place and time of each scene. According to Miller, the goal was to give the set a look of the house either being constructed (a work in progress), or deconstructed (a ruin), to seamlessly correspond with events in the story. A wooden deck can serve as the Oakland docks, the floor of a cottage, or Wolf House. Sections of stone walls and chimneys loom. The wonderful Edwardian-era costumes by Beulah Vega complete the setting.
“The House That Jack Built” presents an engaging, informative and highly entertaining look into a man of dreams and thwarted ambitions, cut off too soon in his mission to “lift the curse of greed” from the world. As it turns out, the house he built is one without walls, and it endures.
When: Now through September 25, 2016
7:30 p.m. Thursdays
8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays
Tickets: $10 to $26
Where: 6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
52 West 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA
(707) 523-4185 ext. 1