The San Francisco political establishment came to Berkeley Wednesday night for the opening night of Ghost Light, Berkeley Rep’s play about the life and legacy of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, whose life was cut short when Dan White assassinated him and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, flanked by earpiece-wearing bodyguards, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Moscone’s widow, Gina, were all in the audience. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who once worked for Moscone, was there, too.
If those politicos came to see a play that recounted Moscone’s life and legacy, they were out of luck. Ghost Light, which was written by the Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, and directed by Moscone’s youngest son, Jonathan, now the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, is the story of an imagined Jon Moscone and his struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father 34 years after his death. It is a play within a play, for the narrative centers on the fictional Jonathan trying to direct a production of Hamlet. He can’t seem to decide what the ghost in that play should look or act like, in part because his dreams are haunted by the ghosts of the past who just won’t leave him alone.
Ghost Light opens with a 14-year old Jon Moscone sitting on the floor of his family’s living room. It is November 27, 1978 and Jon has stayed home from school because he is sick. He is idly watching TV when the regular broadcast is interrupted by a news alert. A shaky camera finds San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein issuing a somber statement: “As the President of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.”
The scene sent chills through my body and immediately brought me back to that terrible time. Just nine days earlier, more than 900 people from the People’s Temple had killed themselves in Jonestown and the images of their bloated corpses rotting in the jungle sun dominated the news. Then, just as San Francisco was grappling with those awful deaths, the city’s charismatic mayor and trail-blazing supervisor were killed. “Everyone thought what is going on in San Francisco? Is the world coming to an end?” Taccone commented at a press conference Wednesday afternoon before the play’s opening night.
Unfortunately, those chills during the opening scene were the only ones I felt. While there is much to admire, enjoy, and even find interesting in Ghost Light, it is marred by three things: 1) it is overly complicated, often to the point of confusion, 2) the central character, Jon Moscone, is so annoying it is hard to feel sympathy for him, and 3) the precise conflict Jon is struggling with over his father is not exactly clear.
Taccone wrote Ghost Light after sitting day after day with Jonathan Moscone, hearing him talk about his father, the fact that he felt somewhat responsible for his death (in the sense that kids take on the burdens of their parents), and how he had processed or evaded his emotions surrounding his father’s death.
The play is meant to be an expression of that emotional confusion, and Taccone uses a series of dream sequences to illustrate Moscone’s mental state. In one dream there is his abusive grandfather, a San Quentin prison guard (Bill Giesslinger) who promises to bring George Moscone back to his son. In another there is a police officer (Peter Macon) who stood sentinel the day of George Moscone’s funeral and wants to whip the young boy into shape. Then there is Basil, (Ted Deasy), someone Jon Moscone has been flirting with online who has the pseudonym Loverboy. Finally, there is a film director (Peter Frechette) who has promised to make a film that will restore George Moscone’s legacy, which Moscone’s son feels has been overshadowed by that of Harvey Milk.
Each of the scenes as presented in Ghost Light is good, even compelling, but they are hard to follow. Who everybody is and what he or she stands for becomes clearer in the second act, but getting there takes patience.
Christopher Liam Moore, who plays the older Jon Moscone (Tyler James Myers plays the 14-year old) does a magnificent job. He talks and talks for much of the play, sometimes in long soliloquies, sometimes in witty repartee with his costume designer and friend, Louise, played by Robynn Rodriguez, and others. You can’t take your eyes off him.
But the Jon Moscone as written by Taccone is relentless. He is so tortured that even his moments of charm don’t redeem him. His inability to feel, to immerse himself in life and the way he complains about it all starts to grate late in the second act. And frankly, I wasn’t really sure what was torturing him. He is upset that his father hasn’t received the recognition as the liberal trailblazer he deserves. While Milk is credited with winning more rights for gays, it was Moscone who forced through the passage of a bill in the California State Senate legalizing sodomy, the Jon Moscone on stage tells us. The vote was tied, and George Moscone locked the doors of the chamber until he could go fetch the lieutenant governor to cast the tie-breaking vote.
But when Jon Moscone meets Basil in real life, he is offended that the man has actually visited the slain mayor’s grave. Is the struggle in Ghost Light, then, between Jon Moscone’s urges to both claim and deny his father? What exactly is Moscone’s wound? Of course he carries deep sadness that his father was brutally assassinated, but he keeps saying he isn’t sad, he is numb, he is diffident. Even at the end of the play, when the ghost of George Moscone comforts the 14-year old Jon and dances with him, the elder Jonathan tells of a dream he had of his father way out in the ocean. The older Jon doesn’t get his feet wet to save him. He abandons his father.
Despite this ambiguity and the fact that, at two hours and 15 minutes, the play is too long, I recommend it. There are many scenes that work well; Taccone, after all has been directing riveting theater for decades and he knows more than a little about creating drama. Ghost Light is well directed as well. And it is certainly exciting to see this unusual collaboration, since the expected sequence of events would have had Jonathan Moscone write the play and Tony Taccone direct it. I expect the play will evolve and sharpen with time, but it is absolutely worthwhile to experience the process as it is happening.
The set, featuring San Francisco City Hall and Jon’s living room (where the television always seems to be on) is good, (designed by Todd Rosnethal), as is the lighting (Christopher Akerlind.) And when there is a brief scene of two gay men meeting in the 1970s, the costumes, by Meg Neville, are so dead-on you almost want to laugh out loud.
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