Magic Theatre’s ‘The Resting Place’ blurs the line between humanity and criminality

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Content warning: Sexual violence

When we watch the news cover the latest in horrific crimes, we often unconsciously create a profile of the perpetrators — their likes and dislikes, their daily routines, etc. We villainize their character, but we only see them in relation to their horrendous actions. We never think about who they were to those they cared about, who they were before the criminal events occurred. As Magic Theatre’s world premiere of “The Resting Place” in San Francisco proves, there is always more to the story than the news can ever give us.

Directed by Jessica Holt, “The Resting Place” follows a family mourning the suicide of their son Travis while also processing the fact that he sexually abused many children before he died. Externally, Travis’s parents and sisters must deal with the consequences of these revelations from judgemental neighbors and intrusive reporters. Internally, they struggle between the love they have for him and the horror they feel in learning about his actions. The main conflict of the play comes from Travis’s headstrong sister Annie (Martha Brigham), who insists on a proper funeral for the man who has been ostracized by the public, much to her father Mitch’s (James Carpenter) objection.

It’s a penetrating glimpse into familial relations, one that is accentuated by the intimacy of Magic Theatre. The thrust stage of the Fort Mason Center theater places the audience only a few feet away from the family’s living room, allowing them a voyeuristic experience. Every emotional beat is heightened as the audience can observe the minute nuances in the actors’ expressions. The tension is palpable as Mitch and Annie argue and the family’s anguish is deeply experienced. Most notably is the devastation felt when one of Travis’s victims, Charles (Andrew LeBuhn), anxiously recounts the abuse in explicit detail.

Through Travis’s relations with his father, mother Angela (Emilie Talbot), Annie, sister Macy (Emily Radosevich) and ex-partner Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser), playwright Ashlin Halfnight humanizes the men we vilify in media. Even though he is never on stage, Travis’ presence is felt very vividly throughout the play. As we only see the consequences of his actions through the eyes of his conflicted family, the audience is forced to evaluate the man through a more encompassing lens. The characters and therefore the audience recognize he had a life before his crimes and left behind people who mourned him in private.

Halfnight’s television background is evident with the transitions between the scenes. Along with lighting changes to imply new scenes, instrumental music such as The Cinematic Orchestra’s “Arrival of the Birds” and “To Build a Home” played to help shift the scene, similar to classic television segue techniques. While the poignant music did help underscore the emotional beats, it also undermined the intimacy of the story — the nondiegetic music jars the audience and reminds them of the fourth wall that the play works so hard to forget.

In an age when the topic of sexual assault has become prevalent in media, “The Resting Place” shines a light on the story behind the scandal — not to sympathize but to qualify.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].