Review of The House That Jack Built
By Cecelia Tichi
Directed by Craig A. Miller
For tickets & schedule:
6th Street Playhouse
Santa Rosa, CA
RUN: September 9 – 25, 2016
RATING: 3 of 5 stars
(September 16, 2016)
The House That Jack Built is a product of meticulous scholarship, which is both a blessing and a curse. Packed with detailed historical information, it brilliantly ties Jack London’s social justice work into the present day, rendering his works relevant to a modern audience. Quotes from Jack London are seamlessly mingled with original writing—recognizable to those who have spent time in Glen Ellen or are familiar with his work. Attending the play is rather like having a history book read aloud, causing the drama to struggle under heavy prose and preachy asides that constantly interrupt flow. A hilarious reference to Fanny Farmer’s cookbooks is cut short by a screeching halt in the play to explain who Fanny Farmer is to the audience. References are laboriously picked apart, talking down to the audience and repeating information.
As a Chautauqua it is wildly successful; as a play it falls short. The purpose is admirable—there should be more public awareness of Jack London’s work for the marginalized, poor, labor laws, prison reform, and environmentally friendly farming techniques. I have seen history plays fall into this trap before; it is possible to over research to the point where facts and data overwhelm the story.
Mingled with straight lecturing is an engaging love story between Jack and Charmian that is both relaxed and challenging. From lounging about in the cottage to a passionate boxing match thanks to accurate and exciting fight choreography by Marty Pistone, their relationship is the best part of The House That Jack Built. Costume Designer Beulah Vega recreates the characters’ looks, from Jack’s signature loose tie and light suit to Charmian’s dressing gown that you can see a photo of in the cottage. Jesse Dreikosen’s set design evokes the Wolf House in craggy ruins and a stone floor, with quiet homages to the locations, such as strung up writing notes in Jack’s study that I have seen when walking past his room in the museum.
Edward McCloud as Jack London embodies his character in poise, expression, and study of a brief audio clip of the author. He projects Jack’s soul onstage in a palpable way; his hopelessness seated amid the ruins of the Wolf House brings that moment in history to life with the assistance of clouds of smoke and Ryan Severt’s fiery lighting design. For a moment, we were part of that terrible day with him. Elizabeth Henry (Charmian London) is the highlight of this production. Her vivacious portrayal comes alive as a loving, adventurous companion. Her chemistry with McCloud’s Jack is dynamic and heartwarming, pulling their romance out of forgotten history into breathing reality. The supporting cast does their best with the fact heavy dialog. Ben Harper adds atmosphere and silent commentary to the bar scene, which lurches between tense drama and a race to see how many historical notes can be crammed into the least amount of time, rather like a docent who has ten minutes to explain an entire museum, because the tourists’ bus is about to leave.
Jack London is an integral part of North Bay history, and his stances on the economic problems of his age are crucial to understand for our crisis today. The House That Jack Built is the perfect introduction to a life that was more than mere adventure—his thoughtful and firmly held beliefs in a better world are an inspiration. Despite problems with dense presentation, there is enough life in this play to maintain the audience’s interest. It prompted a visit to Jack London State Historic Park for me, and although the play reads like a guided tour of the Wolf House, it is worth attending for its historical significance and excellent cast.
For hours and fees to visit the Wolf House and cottage, visit: www.jacklondonpark.com
Enjoy photos I took today from my trip to Jack London State Historic Park of locations and objects referenced in the play: