Wolf House, the doomed Glen Ellen dream-home of author Jack London, burned down over 103 years ago, just 13 years before London himself passed away. While London has seen his fair share of public adulation since then – especially during this, the centennial of this death – Wolf House is finally getting a bit of its own star treatment in a world premiere play currently running at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Titled “The House That Jack Built,” the play was written by Vanderbilt University scholar Cecelia Tichi, and features a strong performance by actor Ed McCloud, as Jack London.
Wolf House itself is also effectively played by some meticulously painted flats, a bit of well-placed furniture, and – in the play’s climactic scene – a smoldering wooden beam and a great deal of smoke.
Directed by 6th Street Playhouse’s artistic director Craig Miller, the play runs through Sunday, Sept. 25 in the company’s small Studio Theater, where it is accompanied by another London-themed world premiere. “Call of the Wild,” written and performed by acclaimed Minneapolis solo performer Charlie Bethel, is a minimalist one-man-show adapted from London’s beloved 1903 adventure novel.
In the fast-paced solo piece – running in repertory with “House” in the Studio Theater – Bethel plays all of the book’s characters, including Buck, the California ranch dog who is stolen and forced to become a sled-dog in the frozen Yukon. With remarkable physical skill, Bethel also assumes the postures and snarling inner thoughts of the various other canines Buck encounters – and even plays a human or two, including the kind-hearted outdoorsman Jack Thornton.
In “The House That Jack Built,” a bit overloaded with material from Tichi’s obviously exhaustive research, the drama often strains beneath the weight of so much scholarly detail. But McCloud’s performance as London, sparring effectively – and in once scene, literally – with Elizabeth Henry as Charmian London, is truly engaging and well-studied. With subtle movements, McCloud gives hints of the kidney troubles that would contribute to London’s premature death, and his emotional, gut-wrenching delivery of the famous “I would rather be ashes than dust” credo is impressively stirring.
This piece originally appeared in the Sonoma Index-Tribune
Other figures from London’s life appear, mostly in a long first-act scene – which probably never happened in real life – in which the author engages in heated debate and nostalgic reminiscences with a few old acquaintances. His boyhood pal from Oakland is played by Lito Briano.
Ben Harper appears as bar-owner Johnny Heinold, and newspaper reporter Cloudesley Johns is played by James Rowan, who also doubles as a big business lawyer attempting to hire London to write a novel extolling the virtues of capitalism. Matthew Cadigan portrays Martin Johnson, the photographer and adventurer who accompanied London, as ship’s cook, on the famous South Seas voyage immortalized in the book, “The Cruise of the Snark.”
Tichi, a first-time playwright, authored the 2015 book, “Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America” (University of North Carolina Press). She reportedly sent Miller a copy of the “House That Jack Built” script last year, following a staged-reading of the play at Vanderbilt University, and was in attendance in Santa Rosa for the play’s official opening night on Sept. 9.