From the opening moments of Dead Man's Wake, a new play by Larry Klein, the pain and guilt hanging over the story's central characters are thick enough to scoop into an ice cream cone. Based on a true story from Mill Valley in the late 1960s (though generalized enough in Klein's script, with little sense of time and virtually no sense of Mill Valley), Dead Man's Wake begins as various members of the Ogden family deal differently with a devastating tragedy. The potent universality of the situation is its primary asset, and audiences are sure to be moved by the strength of the production's acting, so committed are the contributions of this very fine cast.
The play, produced through the West Coast Arts Foundation, runs through Nov. 14 at San Rafael's West End Studio Theatre.
In one of the season's most explosive performances, William Elsman plays Jess Ogden, a struggling poet hell-bent on drinking his pain away following an incident that continues to torture him. With a kind of tender self-loathing, Jess forces himself through his days, haunted—almost but not quite literally—by the memory of his novelist father, whose own pain proved too much to bear. Liz O'Neill (who also directs) is Leah, the fragile matriarch of the family, who's channeled her own grief into a chronic, passive-aggressive interest in Jess's literary future. As Leah, O'Neill is both steely and brittle.
The play begins with the family awaiting the return of younger son Brian, who's been serving a four-year prison term. Played by Tyler McKenna as a young man whose pain and fear are buried under a façade of strut and bluster, Brian is the catalyst for the family's current crisis: if the Ogdens can agree to sell their family home, he'll be able to purchase a ranch in Montana, where he can hide from the secrets tearing at his family's collective soul.
Of course, Leah is reluctant to leave the home she shared with her late husband, even if it allows her sons a chance at a new life. Similarly resistant to pull up stakes is Andrea (played with striking clarity and openness by Chloe Bronzan), Brian's girlfriend, who in his four-year absence has found a core of strength and self-determination that she's not ready to relinquish. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a fine performance from Terry McGovern as longtime family friend with more than a passing interest in the future of the Ogden family, and Katarina Rose Fabic as one of Jess' casual girlfriends.
The acting, at times, transcends the weaknesses of Klein's script. Though quite good at creating fully rounded characters, Klein—who has been working on this labor of love for 40 years—tries too hard to do too much. Rambling and unfocused, it often feels like an early draft of what could eventually be a truly exceptional piece of work.
Structurally, the story is cleverly designed, wisely allowing the true nature of the Ogdens' situation to unfold gradually. But there's far too much meaningless talk in the form of disruptive and pointless exclamations nearly every time someone is trying to make a point. With the help of a good, strong editor, one who understands the tricky feat Klein has come so terribly close to accomplishing, this could eventually develop into a play that is truly extraordinary.
'Dead Man's Wake' runs Friday&–Sunday through Nov. 14 at the West End Studio Theatre. Friday&–Saturday 8:00 pm; 2pm matinee Sunday. $25. 1554 Fourth St., San Rafael. 800.838.3006.