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Mortal Coil 

Afterlife and healing in 'The Dead Girl'

click to enlarge WAKING DREAM Emilie Talbot as Esther in this play staged inside a consignment shop.
  • WAKING DREAM Emilie Talbot as Esther in this play staged inside a consignment shop.

Ann Brebner, who celebrates her 90th birthday this August, waited a very long time to write the bittersweet, supernaturally tinged drama The Dead Girl. Having directed hundreds of productions all over the world, it wasn't until recently that the co-founder of the Marin Shakespeare Company began tackling the craft of playwriting. In 2008, she adapted Anne Lamott's novel Hard Laughter.

And now, at last, Brebner has written her first original play. Presented by San Rafael's Alternative Theater Ensemble (a magnificently quirky company presenting top-notch original and classic plays in make-shift pop-up spaces—usually stores and galleries—along San Rafael's Fourth Street), The Dead Girl, directed by Brebner, is staged amid the tables and clothing racks of Avant Garde, a consignment shop. With a cast of four actors, the tale plays out around a tiny living room set, with the audience about as up close and personal as one will find in a live theater experience.

Gloria (an effervescent Amy Marie Haven), six months after her death at the age of 30, finds herself back at home, a kind of watchful spirit as her mother, Esther (Emilie Talbot, achingly fragile), and stepfather, George (a superb Charles Dean), struggle with a mix of grief, loss and guilt while making plans for a long-delayed trip around the world. Her fiancé, Malcolm (David E. Moore), is also struggling with how, and when, to move on.

These are people with no dark, third-act secrets to reveal, which is part of the power of this play. It all feels so painfully, accessibly real—two parents dealing with loss the way most of us would, with a simultaneous mix of courage and collapse, observing the same everyday routines while recognizing that nothing will ever be the same.

Packed with local references, Brebner's dialogue is wonderfully lived-in and natural, infused with intelligence and poetry while still managing to feel everyday and universal. When a grieving Esther says of herself and George, "This is my family tapestry. There are only two colors now. There used to be three," the line resonates with gentle sadness.

The script does feel a bit overextended, with a tad more explanation and resolution than is perhaps necessary, and Brebner's use of music to underscore the emotion of some scenes was at times more distracting than intended.

Still, for its sweet, intimate honesty and remarkable sense of battered beauty, Ann Brebner's The Dead Girl was well worth waiting for.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

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