GHOST LIGHT Illuminates a Son's Struggle Now Thru Feb. 19th
Opening night for Ghost Light at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw luminaries from the world of politics converging for the production - a play that examines the struggle of a son coming to grips with the death of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated in 1978. Most prominent were Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who all knew or worked with George Moscone and who remain close to the Moscone family. Also in attendance was Gina Moscone, wife of the assassinaTed Mayor. How each of them dealt with the tragedy could be plays of their own, but this one was about the youngest son Jonathan Moscone.
If you're a long-time San Franciscan then you remember when larger-than-life Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978, the victim of a tragic shooting that also killed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in California and one of eleven city supervisors.
But if you're from anywhere else then you likely remember more about Milk and his iconic stature as a beacon of light in the battle for gay rights than you do about Moscone – the man who paved the way for Milk's election. For, while Milk's story has reached near mythic proportions (including Sean Penn's Academy Award winning turn as the slain supervisor), the legacy of George Moscone, the man who was instrumental in moving San Francisco in a more progressive direction by giving a voice to the many people and groups who were voiceless, has somehow been relegated to the sidelines of history.
This fact and much more has understandably haunTed Mayor Moscone's youngest son, Jon, for most of his life. Now a director of the California Shakespeare Theater he turned one night to friend and fellow artistic director Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep) and confided a secret longing.
"…He wanted to create a piece about his father," says Taccone, who was floored by the revelation and who ultimately penned the play. The time had finally come for Jon Moscone to exorcise his ghosts and confront his feelings about the loss of his father. And Taccone was there to help him.
Ghost Light, is the culmination of that exorcism. It's a careening look into the psychological breakdown of a man finally coming to grips with the tragic loss of his famous father. And though it's about Jonathan it is a fictionalized version of him.
At a press conference that we were gathered at several hours before opening night, Taccone and Moscone were asked just how much of the play was true and how much was fiction. Moscone answered. "The hope was that everything we ended up with on stage is true in that its source was something emotionally genuine and psychologically accurate." He added, "In terms of the realism of the piece, it is a dream play. And it takes place inside of the head and outside of the head of the character Jon Moscone, who is based on me."
Like his real-life counterpart the character of Jon (Christopher Liam Moore) is an out gay man who is a theatre director. In the play he is in the throes of directing Hamlet when he has the equivalent of severe writer's block over how to portray Hamlet's Ghost father. The impasse causes him to see ghosts of his own including his younger self (Tyler James Myers), a police officer named Mister (Peter Macon) and a prison guard (Bill Geisslinger) who, he finds out later, is his grandfather, a man the real Jonathan barely remembers.
The play weaves in and out of reality and time in a way that is confusing. Jon's imaginary boyfriend (hunky Danforth Comins) is confronted with the imaginary Prison Guard who demands that he give Jon a message from the beyond, but isn't this Jon's own dream? And Jon's younger self contends with visits from the mysterious Mister who is dressed in a police uniform and serves as something of a guide. Later we learn that he was one of police officers that was on duty for the public funeral of the mayor. There is much here that works but the threads are loose, giving the show a scattered effect that isn't altogether satisfying.
Jon's inability to proceed with his director duties on Hamlet causes longtime friend and costume designer Louise (a loving and pragmatic Robynn Rodriguez) a great deal of worry about both the show and her friend. She gently theorizes that his block about Hamlet's Ghost father is more about his own past but Jon denies any problem with his father.
"So how do you explain barely mentioning him for all this time?" she asks. To which Jon responds, "What can I tell you? My family has a deep affinity for protracted periods of unbearable silence. Assassination tends to put a damper on table talk. You have no idea."
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal sets the play against the looming backdrop of San Francisco's City Hall, the place where Moscone and Milk were gunned down by Dan White. Two television sets are used to great effect. One is a modern flat screen but the other is a set hailing from the 70's on which we watch a dazed Dianne Feinstein tell us that Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. That moment still has the power to shock.
In the time following the killings the story of gay activist turned supervisor Harvey Milk quickly obscured the mayor and his absolute dedication to upending racial and gender bias. He immediately set about making sure that inclusiveness was the new order of the day in San Francisco, but not many people know this.
Jon's character recounts one story about his father to Louise about the time when Moscone locked the California State Senate in their chamber to give the Lieutenant Governor time to get to the capitol to cast the deciding vote that passed a bill legalizing sodomy. "The arrogance, the audacity, the clarity," he says. "What a gift." It was a gift, but sadly, it made for a lot of enemies.
Ultimately Jon Moscone's character must deal with his own ghostly enemies. In Ghost Light the real Moscone has made a brave attempt at lessening the marginalization of his father's memory by creatively merging his theatrical talent with his personal past. Certainly in the thick of the battle for gay rights the spotlight was on Milk. But with the emergence of the broader Occupy Wall Street movement, in which a large swath of the American people feel left out and excluded, the timing is right to lift up the life of George Moscone.
At the press conference I asked Jon what his father would have done about the Occupy movement in San Francisco. He said, "My father would have found a way for everyone to have a voice." In the end I'm not sure if Ghost Light went far enough in illuminating Moscone's contributions but it is a good start.
GHOST LIGHT - Drama
Conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone
Written by Tony Taccone
Jan 6 - Feb. 19, 2012
2 hours, 30 minutes (15 min. intermission)
Photo courtesy of Kevinberne.com