Thursday, October 25, 2018

"The Resting Place"

The Resting Place
Ashlin Halfnight

James Carpenter and Cast of The Resting Place
How many times a month, a week do we read yet another headline of one person’s atrocious act against innocent others -- be it extortion, murder, or sexual abuse of other adults or of children?  And while any passing thoughts and sympathies we may pause a few minutes to contemplate are rightfully focused on the victims and their families, what about the families of the perpetrators?  What happens in their lives?  How do they face their life-changing shock, mourn their loss of someone they had loved for a lifetime, and face their own guilt of ‘what did I do/what could I have done?’

In a gripping, heart-pounding, and emotionally arresting world premiere, Magic Theatre presents Ashlin Halfnight’s The Resting Place – a play that forces us to ask ourselves, “What would we do if our son or brother committed a heinous crime?”  If he also took took his own life in despair, how would we remember his life?  Honor his passing?  Deal with our own grief?  Would we do anything but just try to hide from our enraged neighbors and now-former friends?  How would we face anyone in our town who had been a victim or connected to a victim?  Is forgiveness possible – even for a family member we had dearly loved, even adored and admired with all our hearts until just two days ago?

The power of Ashlin Halfnight’s must-see new work is that he raises in our minds many such important questions without providing any quick resolutions.  He opens the closed window blinds of the family in hiding and compels us to see the story we never take the time to consider -- the life-altering effects on the family of the accused. 

James Carpenter and Martha Brigham
Annie arrives at her parents’ Michigan home in boots and insulated vest from a remote yoga retreat, two days after the suicide of her accused brother, Travis.  She is greeted by distraught parents, Mitch and Angela, and her sister, Macy, who left in the peak of running a political campaign to be with her family.  With sleeves rolled up and a list on her laptop of things to do, Annie arrives ready to plan all the details of a funeral and a burial in the family plot of their church. 

She is horrified soon to learn that the other three have already decided there is to be no obituary, no public funeral, and certainly no burial in the plot next to Travis’ beloved grandfather.  With a look stunned and then enraged, she listens to her father explain, “You need to put away your lists, and give yourself a second to just readjust your expectations here.”
James Carpenter, Emilie Talbot, Emily Radosevich & Martha Brigham
But Annie has no intention of letting her family “erase or incinerate” the memory of her brother.  Martha Brigham is nothing short of heart-achingly brilliant in her role as the ever-tense and eminently intense Annie, who brings to this fight for her brother’s memory the same crusading fervor she uses professionally as a warrior for social justice causes.  Annie is black-and-white with little gray.  There is a right and a wrong way to everything and everyone; and with every ounce of her being as voiced sometimes with near-tear tremors and other times with ear-shattering shouts full of expletives, she lets her family know it is wrong not to honor Travis’s passing – no matter what he may have done to others.

Macy is choosing to be the business manager that she is, to look dispassionately at the facts, weigh the costs and benefits, and make a decision with the least fall-out for the family – and one that will allow her quickly to get on the plane and back to her political campaign.  Emily Radosevich is a Macy who rolls her eyes in near disgust at her sister’s newest war against the world around her and who tries to reason with a non-listening Annie “we still have a family to look after.”  But her Macy also has a line where she no longer can be the more cautious, rationale manager.  Like each of these family members, she has moments of explosion of extreme emotions – some pent-up from family history and some coming from new clues and revelations of who these people really are that she calls her family.

Angela is just trying to cope as a mother who has had the shock no mother can imagine ever having.  As she pours yet another scotch, she wryly notes with a slight slur, “My mother would have called this a six-drink day ... I’m on eight.”  With jaw firmly set and eyes puffed from past bouts of tears, Emilie Talbot’s Angela is not one to mince words about her reaction to Annie’s stubborn insistence on a proper funeral:  “The mule comes home.”

Martha Brigham & Emilie Talbot
The tendency for she and her daughter to clash has clearly existed a long time, long before the current crisis.  It is written in Angela’s sullen, oft-silent, but very expressive reactions to Annie’s continued diatribes against the family’s decisions made in Annie’s absence.  But there is also a deep love for Annie and for her entire family that Ms. Talbot’s Angela time and again expresses in her own low-key way, including a striking, moving conversation – mother to mother -- with Annie (who has two young sons) about being a parent and “racing to stockpile as many moments of love and adoration as you can before your kid figures out you’re a fraud.” 

The yin to Annie’s yang is her father, Mitch, given by Bay Area revered James Carpenter yet one more jaw-dropping performance among this formidable cast.  His Mitch is at times a soft-spoken, flannel-shirt-wearing dad who gently tries to steer his daughters – especially the pressing, passionate Annie – to a peaceful resolution of their horrendous dilemma.  But at other time, his Mitch is an erupting volcano of self-defenses, justifications, and accusations, throwing f-bombs with a shouted venom enough to cause bones to shutter. 

Before us, we see what families are too often capable of doing to each other, in all extremes.  While the script is wrenching and raw without boundaries at times, who cannot help but recognize the possibility and probability of any family – including our own families -- reacting in much the same ways under circumstances similar?

Joining this stunning foursome are two briefer appearances by young men who had associations with Travis.  Wiley Naman Strasser enters as the still-in-shock ex-boyfriend, Liam, who too must deal painfully wondering what clues did he miss all those years of the kind of person Travis really was.  Mr. Strasser’s Liam also provides a breath-gasping account of the phone call he received just before Travis’ final act in life, with a look ghostly and with eyes welling even as he tries to account words that have difficultly coming. 

Andrew LeBuhn is haunting in his portrayal of eighteen-year-old Charles, brought into the family home by Mitch in an attempt for Annie to hear a first-hand account of the kind of person Travis actually was.  As he tells his story with a foot that cannot halt its rapid trembling and hands whose veins almost pop as he rolls a jacket over and again, Charles’ appearance ignites a series of confrontations among the family that make earlier ones seem a picnic.

Many choices both empathic and daring have been made by Director Jessica Holt; but striking in particular is the placement of family members as they confront and challenge each other.  At one point when Annie is pitting herself against the other three, they stand without budging as the apexes of a triangle surrounding her.  Later, when the family is at a near standstill of any mutual agreement or understanding, they stand in four corners -- each as if protecting his/her own remaining integrity and sanity while also joining in either the brutal attack or the over-blown defense of that of one or more of the others.  Ms. Holt takes the emotion-ripping script of Mr. Halfnight and ensures that this cast leaves us as an exiting audience with impressions, insights, and questions that will stay with us for years to come.

The director is joined by a creative team, first-class in every respect.  The living room setting created by Edward T. Morris could be that of any of our parents who grew up somewhere in the Midwest, with touches added by Jacquelyn Scott as props designer that at first glance, bring our knowing smiles of recognition.  This is the home of Every Family, as we contemplate to what extent could this horrible set of events happen to Any Family, including ours. 

The lighting by Wen-Ling Liao creates effects leading to both spotlighted and subdued moments that will not soon leave our memories.  Sara Huddleston’s sound design lures us into a home and neighborhood familiar, with music that attracts us curiously in the beginning and then later, wraps us in the heart-pounding scenes occurring before us.  Finally, Shelby-Lio Feeney’s costumes write an entire description of personality and current predilections about each of the six characters.

Live theater has the potential to bring together a group of strangers to experience an event that will impact each of their separate lives in ways they never dreamed upon entering.  As premiered by Magic Theatre, The Resting Place by Ashlin Halfnight is live theatre at is most difficult, most impactful, most important best.

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

The Resting Place continues through November 4, 2018 in world premiere at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

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