“Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.”
– Mary Schmich, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.”, Chicago Tribune (1 June 1997)
[Later recycled into Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-word song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen”)]
We’re always told that “family comes first”. I’ve always found this to be complete bullshit. I get the sentiment: if you can’t trust the blood relatives you’ve known your entire life, whom can you trust? But that sort of thinking will immediately blind you to a relative’s worst possible traits when they get called out on them.
I have a great many friends and colleagues who are educators or work with children and teens in one form or another, and I can’t tell you how often they’ve been told “My kid can’t be a bully.” No debate on the parents’ part, no acknowledgement to the evidence or first-hand reports. No, for them it all comes down to “I know my kid.” Yeah, we all “know”. There are friends, acquaintances, and close colleagues whom we all claim to “know”. And the closer we feel to them, the more we’ll deny their worst traits – especially if they’re family.
Harvey Weinstein has a family. Bill Cosby has a family. Louis CK, Woody Allen, and Kevin Spacey all have families. Each is still very much the creator of some beloved work that helped them provide for their families as they won the adoration of fans. It’s also true that each of them abused their power and authority to sexually assault numerous people over a number of years. Each is both a beloved icon and an unforgivable monster – one does not cancel out the other.
It’s this sort of dichotomy that lies at the heart of The Resting Place, Ashlin Halfnight’s newest play, receiving its world premiere at The Magic. It’s a piece about how easily we forgive the ones we love, despite the fact that the world will never forget.
Annie loved her brother Travis. She supported him when he came out of the closet and applauded his career success. So, when he takes his own life after living through a public scandal, Annie’s on the first plane back to Michigan to help her parents and sister bury him.
But it’s not as simple as all that. While Annie wants a grand tribute to the brother she loved,both the town and her family would just like his name to disappear. As Annie intensifies her efforts and new details of her brother come to light, the question remains whether she – or anyone – really knew Travis at all.
Let’s get to it: Travis was a pedophile. This isn’t some secret the pops out in the final scene; it’s revealed rather early in the play. I feel the need to point it out because 1 – if you’re triggered by that sort of material, you may wish to stay away from this production (one of his victim’s – played in a heartbreaking performance by Andrew LeBuhn – recounts his rape by Travis in graphic detail), 2 – I couldn’t help but notice that I saw this play the same day the Pope accepted the resignation of several pedophilic cardinals, and 3 – because coming to terms with who someone you love was, in public and in private, is the major theme of the play.
Annie (Martha Brigham) is in a state of denial about Travis goes full head-in-the-sand. As an SF-based environmental lawyer, she argues that her brother is the victim of a homophobic smear campaign and that his posthumous rights are being violated. It can be frustrating to watch her, but not unrealistic – not in a world where Nicki Minaj pays the legal fees for her child-raping brother, Louis CK is welcomed back to stand-up with a standing ovation, and Kevin Spacey (who infamously used his homosexuality as an excuse for his predatory actions) is vigorously defended by Dame Judi Dench. One of the play’s most riveting scenes has Annie’s father Mitch (James Carpenter) more or less trapping her in a corner to force her to read the files on Travis’ victims and headlines from the newspapers. It isn’t done as an act of cruelty on Mitch’s part, but desperation.
I dare say the wisest decision on Halfnight’s part is to clearly separate Travis’ crimes from his sexual orientation. His homosexuality, as represented by his bereaved partner Liam (Wiley Strasser), is part of him without being his defining trait. So, too, do his horrible actions make up just one part of who he was. This is reflected by the other characters occasionally reducing one another to their professions (sister Macy is a NY-based campaign manager, mother Angela a homemaker, etc.), their bodies (Angela hilariously reminisces about Annie’s adolescent body image issues and Mitch’s current reliance on Viagra), or their residences – though Annie and Macy live in the lefty-topias of SF and NY, respectively, Mitch reminds them that he and Angela are stuck in their suburb with their neighbors for life.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it gave me mixed emotions. The majority of the play is about how impossible it is to forgive and forget, which can make for an unearned saccharine conclusion or one completely tragic. This production seems to want both at the same time, which doesn’t completely work. Mind you, it doesn’t torpedo the whole show, it just seems as if the show was confused as to how to finish, stumbling towards the finish line.
Having said that, the production elements of the show are great. Director Jessica Holt (whom I’ve been directed by before, I’ve also worked alongside actors Wiley Strasser and James Carpenter) has an excellent command of both the space of The Magic and the ebb/flow of her cast. Granted, there were a few times I missed some faces due to one actor being in the way, but such is the way when not sitting center in a thrust stage. What’s more, I appreciate that the majority of the scene transitions are done by the actors in-character (regular readers know that I’m not going to let this go). One is done by visible stagehands, but watching Mitch and Liam carry a rug like a coffin is an image that sticks with you. My mixed feelings on the ending notwithstanding, excellent work by Holt.
It doesn’t hurt that she has a great cast with which to work. If there’s one flaw in the performances of James Carpenter and Emilie Talbot, it’s that they often threaten to consume those of their younger castmates. The two don’t chew scenery, mind you, but the skill at which these veterans turn emotionally on a dime makes everyone else invisible. Talbot in particular struck me in an early scene in which Annie and Mitch argue over the family plot. Though Angela spends a lot of the time trying to numb herself with booze, Talbot’s silence during this scene – every word Annie and Mitch say is a dagger in Angela’s heart – somehow speaks volumes, resulting in a gripping performance. I don’t recall having seen Martha Brigham before, but both she and Emily Radosevich hold their own as daughters Annie and Macy. It helps that Radosevich is actually playing a character this time, rather than the plot-device-with-dialogue she was cast as in Aurora’s Detroit ’67.
Though Edward Morris’s detailed suburban set is easy to admire from every angle, my audience-right seat allowed me to appreciate the equally detailed US-R hallway leading to the off-stage bedroom. When it later transforms into the front of Liam’s home and the empty hall, one can hardly believe they’re looking at the same space. The scene outside of Liam’s is when I noticed the subtle outdoor sounds of crickets by Sara Huddleston. Her choices of music and Wen-Ling Liao’s lights easily allow the audience to lose themselves in the space. Well done, one and all.
Halfnight’s play is about the hypocrisy of telling a trauma victim to simply “get over it”. Yes, the person who caused the trauma was a human being with their own life story, but so is the person who suffered. One story does not negate the other. Unless both sides acknowledge and deal with the truth head-on, healing is impossible.
The Resting Place is a show that asks a great many important questions, but fumbles a bit when it can’t quite find an answer. Still, the way in which those questions are asked – directing, acting, and production design – are all well done. Not quite perfect, but a fine season-opener for The Magic’s 52nd year.
The Resting Place is scheduled to run until the 4th of November at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason.
The show runs roughly two hours with a single 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.