"Dead Man's Wake" by Larry Klein at West End Studio Theater, San Rafael CA

“Dead Man’s Wake” by Larry Klein at West End Studio Theatre, San Rafael CA
Presented by Margot Jones and the West Coast Arts Foundation

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photos by Rick Banghart

In the Wake of Tragedy

Even if you’re not treasure-hunting, it’s always a pleasure to find a hidden gem, especially one in a hole-in-the wall setting. “Dead Man’s Wake” is one such gem, and with a bit more lapidary work and polishing, it just might end up on Broadway. Its world premiere is being presented at a former bicycle repair shop reborn as the 60-seat West End Studio Theatre in San Rafael. It is such an intimate venue, the story is so personal, and the performances are so compelling that you feel like a voyeur, somehow intruding in a very private family matter instead of sitting in a theater. And you come to care about these people, like they were your own family. Such is the skill of writer, director and actors.

The playwright is Kansas native and Marin County resident Larry Klein, who spent 38 years with the San Francisco Opera handling technical direction before taking his skills to the Marin Ballet. “Dead Man’s Wake” is his first full-length play, and it’s evident he possesses good instincts as a writer, crafting his characters with loving care, although he did take his time – he started writing it 40 years ago. The provenance of the story is right here in the Bay Area, loosely based on an actual incident that happened in 1969 to a Mill Valley family he knew, and inspired by tragedy in Klein’s own life. Margot Jones – with a background as choreographer, director, screenwriter and filmmaker – saw the potential of this fine work and agreed to serve as its producer through her West Coast Arts Foundation.

Director Liz O’Neill, who also ended up in a lead role when the original cast member left, is strong as both actor and director, a difficult task. Her portrayal of Leah, the family matriarch, shows a woman deeply in mourning and denial, who, with her two sons, struggles for control in the aftermath of her writer husband’s long illness and death.

There is potent chemistry at work between the cast members. You believe they know each other intimately, and the unspoken but deeply felt history of their lives together is the undercurrent of the piece, although at times the dialogue seems to be slogging through a marsh and could benefit from some trimming. William Elsman as the complex would-be poet Jess conveys emotional power and vulnerability, his father’s suicide casting a shadow over his soul, although at times Elsman skates dangerously close to the edge of melodrama. Jess’ brother Brian, played by Tyler McKenna, arrives home seemingly unfazed from four years in prison, full of enthusiasm and plans for the future, shaded by mistrust and disappointment. Brian’s fiancé and long-time house guest Andrea is played by Chloe Bronzan, who delivers a finely nuanced and intuitive performance. Terry McGovern is warm and natural as Tom, the family’s friend and counselor, who provides a sense of perspective and balance between the characters and the audience. Heather Shepardson in the role of Jess’ sometime girlfriend has a small but effective role.

The set feels just like home, with a cozy sofa and fireplace at your feet. You can almost smell the apple pie in the oven, and the table is set, ready for dinner, but there are some incongruities with props and lighting. Clothing, tableware and beverage bottles do not effectively recall the 1969 setting. While realistic thunderclaps, flashes of lighting and sounds of rainfall announce a storm outside, Leah declares the power is out and she’s been using candles. But the set lighting is still blazing bright, when soft candle-lighting would be more effective.

“Dead Man’s Wake” is the story of a homecoming. It’s also a story of tragedy, courage and the triumph of a family’s ultimate honesty - with themselves and with each other – that leads them to renewed hope in the future.

When: October 29 to November 14, 2010
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $25
Location: West End Studio Theater, 1554 4th Street, San Rafael CA
Phone: 415-453-0552
Website: www.westcoastarts.org