One cannot grow up in Sonoma County, or even visit here for very long, without gaining at least some awareness of who Jack London was. Few local school-kids can’t tell you that London wrote books about wolves and dogs, and some might even be able to name ‘White Fang’ and ‘Call of the Wild.’ Anyone whose done a bit of wine tasting in the Valley of the Moon probably knows that London’s home is now a State park a mere 30-minute drive from Santa Rosa. And of course, this year, the world marks the centennial of London’s death in 1916, with numerous events taking place all over the county.
Interest should be high, therefore, for Cecilia Tichi’s passionate, fact-filled, over-long but generally well-performed world premiere, The House that Jack Built, running now in the Studio at 6th Street playhouse. Directed with resourceful tenacity by Craig Miller, the play appears alongside Charlie Bethel’s acclaimed one-man telling of the aforementioned sled-dog adventure, Call of the Wild, also in the Studio.
Propelled by a first-rate performance by Ed McCloud as Jack London, ‘The House That Jack Built’ is set in August of 1913, three years before his death, just as London was completing construction on Wolf House, the vast rock-and-redwood residence he’d sunk his dwindling fortune into building for himself and his wife Charmian, played nicely by Elizabeth Henry.
It is one of the clever pleasures of Tichi’s script that the house of the play’s title extends not just to the literal Wolf House, but also to the wide world London spent so much time exploring, and the future of which we clearly worried about, and often covered in his progressively political writings. If only the script had focused a little more tightly on that one theme, or any one theme, even just being willing to explore this one pivotal moment in London’s life, instead of trying to tell the entirety of London’s life in the series of long monologues and flimsily constructed conversations that make up the first act.
Few Sonoma County residents don’t know the eventual fiery fate of Wolf House, but that something bad is going to happen to it is easy to guess from all of the first-act foreshadowing about insurance and creditors. The act is anchored by a long barroom conversation between London and three old associates —boyhood pal Frank Atherton (Lito Briano,) newspaper reporter Cloudesley Johns (James Rowan,) and photographer—and one-time South Sea shipmate—Frank Atherton (Matthew Cadigan.)
The actors do what they can with the material. As bar-owner Johnny Heinold, Ben Harper is delightfully natural, all watchfulness and easy grace. But the whole first act is little more than a vigorous recitation of well-researched historical details that the playwright – a scholar at Vanderbilt University – felt lovingly compelled to squeeze in.
The second act—highlighted by an unexpected boxing match and the climactic event that altered the course of London’s life—is far livelier, but still feels less like a play than an interpretive docudrama presented to visiting tourists. If this were Disneyland, it would be performed by animatronic robots. The House That Jack Built—for all its charms and local significance—strains under the weight of being so aggressively “educational.”
That said, it’s never boring, and it has moments that are genuinely and deeply moving, due mainly to McCloud’s muscular, fully engaged performance—and, of course, to the wild, wooly excitement of London’s truly extraordinary life.
‘The House That Jack Built’ runs Thursday–Sunday through September 25 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.org