01/20/2012 07:34 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

'Ghosts' Of San Francisco's Past At The Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The prelude to Berkeley Rep's "Ghost Light" is cheerfully tranquil; as the audience drifts in, a teen-aged boy lies on a brightly colored quilt at center stage, occasionally glancing at TV sets that are skipping through clips from shows and commercials that aired in the 1970s. But anyone who has the slightest awareness of the play and the Bay Area's history knows that the tranquility will not last.

The boy, named Jon, is the fictionalized embodiment of the play's director and adult protagonist, Jonathan Moscone. Knowing this, we can fully expect the transformation that takes place when the house lights dim: the telecasts interrupted by fragments of newscasts that shocked San Francisco, and much of the world beyond, on Nov. 27, 1978. Amid chaos, they announced the assassination of SF Mayor George Moscone and councilman Harvey Milk. The mayor was Jonathan Moscone's father.

What follows is not history in any sense that might have made news. It is, rather, a vivid, sprawling and complex exploration of the impact that traumatic day had -- and presumably still has -- on young Jon and on the man he has become.

Jonathan Moscone grew up to become one of the region's most respected theater figures, as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Festival for the past 11 years. Prompted by an American history project sponsored by Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he conceived the drama but did not write it. That task fell to Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, a long-time friend, with Moscone's constant input. Oregon Shakespeare gave the show its debut, last summer.

What emerged from the collaboration, especially in the first of the play's two acts, is a torrent of nightmares and fantasies interspersed with flashes of troubled reality. Many moments are puzzling and some are bizarre, as they must be. Logic, clarity and order are not characteristics of a disturbed mind.

But brilliant acting and direction turn the puzzles into a compelling kaleidoscope whose only sour note -- at least to these eyes -- is a resolution that suggests that the adult Jon has finally expunged the demons that tormented his mind for decades. Closure may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, but in this case it seems too pat and stagey.

As in reality, the play's adult Jon (Christopher Liam Moore) is a veteran Shakespearean director. He's supposed to stage "Hamlet," but immobilized by a quandary: how to present the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father. That task forces him to remember his own father, and opens the door to a flood of other troubling dream/fantasies.

He finds himself terrorized by crazed, pistol-wielding prison guard (Bill Geisslinger) who may bear some relation to Jon's grandfather; shepherded and guided by a compassionate police officer (Peter Macon); pursued by two would-be lovers: an online stud (Danforth Comins) who may or may not exist, and a bar-room contact who definitely represents the real world (Ted Deasy).

There's also a strong thread of bitterness afflicting Jon because of differing fates that have befallen the public memories of his father and fellow-victim Harvey Milk. San Franciscans may recall Moscone, thanks to the exhibition/convention center that bears his name, but the rest of the world is far more aware of Milk, whose only distinction was to be apparently the first public official to admit that he was gay. In one of the play's stronger and funnier scenes, Jon recounts a few of his father's many public accomplishments, including one as State Senate president that helped decriminalize gay sex in California.

Another of the most powerful and poignant scenes follows young Jon (Tyler James Myers) to his father's funeral, troubled by the distance between them than can never be narrowed, and fantasizing their descent together into the grave. In conception and staging, the moment is as harrowing as it is brilliant.

The one force that constantly strives with some success to keep the adult Jon grounded in the real theatrical world is a sardonic, perceptive colleague played with assurance by Robynn Rodriguez. She handles the role with brisk wit, a clear mind and unaffected compassion, providing a perfect counterpoint to the director's confusion.

The cast is composed of Oregon Shakespeare veterans, most of whom appeared in last year's staging. They know what they're doing, and they're doing it well. Playwright Taccone, director Moscone and their audiences couldn't ask for anything more.

Ghost Light runs through Feb. 19 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets $14.50-$73, from 510-647-2949, or 888-427-8849 (toll free).

Leo Stutzin has covered the arts in the Bay Area and Central Valley for many years.