Afterlife: A Ghost Story certainly lives up to its title, but it is not interested in fulfilling genre expectations. Rather, Steve Yockey's play is deeply affecting drama about living with trauma that feels as if it will last for an eternity - and maybe does.
The firs act introduces us to a married couple returning to a beach house, ostensibly to shutter it down before a storm hits. Through subtle hints and suggestions, the audience soon becomes aware that something else is going on: the husband and wife are grieving for a son who was swept out to sea and never found; the husband is hoping to put the incident in the past and return to life in their home, but the wife is not ready to move on. As they go about preparing the house - action that keeps them busy but never truly gets their mind off the real issue haunting them - they are faced with strange portents: dead fish wash up on the shore, and mysterious black birds flock nearby. Eventually, the wife hears the distant voice of her son, calling from the crashing waves.
Afterlife: A Ghost Story act does a fine job of portraying a couple, both dealing - or failing to deal with - a tragedy in very different ways that mutually reinforce each other's inability to adjust the the void in their souls. The exposition is indirect, allowing the audience to divine what is happening, while the performers make clear what is going on inside their heads even before the truth is spoke out loud. Between the two, the father seems closer to moving on, but even he has not fully relinquished his emotional grip on this lost son, whose name he cannot bring himself to speak out loud.
The second act takes the story into the "Afterlife" of the title. Rather than a heavenly family reunion, the characters find themselves separated, each in a different limbo, their unresolved agony perpetuated even beyond death. The son pens letters to his parents, which are ripped to shreds by the "delivery" man. The blinded father speaks to one of the mysterious black birds, apparently scavengers that strip away the emotional residue like crowd feeding on carrion. The mother finds herself having tea with a personification of the ocean, who far from being a devouring monster is indifferent to the son's fate, pointing out it was not her job to look out for the boy.
As in the first act, the play is reluctant to speak obvious truths out loud, leaving viewers to grasp at meaning as the characters grasp fro surcease of suffering. The enigmatic conversations between Mother and Ocean, between Father and Bird, imply but do not state, offering the barest glimpse of hope, even if false. Any or all of the characters may or may not find a kind of peace, but if it comes it will be more a matter of resignation than triumph. Each member of the audience may come to his or her own conclusions, but in a general way, Afterlife: A Ghost Story is about the inability or the refusal to let go, until time and eternity wears down the will. This is not a traditional story, but it is suffused with horror story; the horror just happens to be of the existential rather than the visceral variety.Time supposedly heals all wounds, but what good is that when time stretches into eternity?
Afterlife: A Ghost Story continues at Avery Schreiber Playhouse (4934 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood 91601) on November 10, 11 & 12, with performances at 8pm on Friday and Saturday and on 7pm on Sunday. The website is here; the Facebook page is here.