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Edgar Allan Poe IV and Joshua James Knightly in Afterlife: A Ghost Story, Collaborative Artists Ensemble at Avery Schreiber Playhouse. (Photo: Courtesy Collaborative Artists Ensemble)
Edgar Allan Poe IV and Joshua James Knightly in Afterlife: A Ghost Story, Collaborative Artists Ensemble at Avery Schreiber Playhouse. (Photo: Courtesy Collaborative Artists Ensemble)

Afterlife: A Ghost Story

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Collaborative Artists Ensemble at Avery Schreiber Playhouse
Through November 12

It’s been observed that grief, particularly that grief which springs from the loss of a loved one, creates its own world, one which has its own rules and laws of physics. In his 2013 drama, playwright Steve Yockey writes about a couple who navigate an undiscovered metaphorical country as they try to cope with the drowning death of their beloved young son. Their journey takes them to an Alice in Wonderland-like hellscape, in a story that starts out like melodrama but quickly veers into haunting fantasy, with all the trademark regret and disturbing undercurrents that are Yockey’s stock in trade.

At times, director Steve Jarrard seems to be helming two different productions. The first, an uneven and somewhat halting chamber piece, gives way to a thoroughly bizarre and compelling tour de force during the drama’s second act. The play opens with a young couple, Connor (Joshua James Knightly) and Danielle (Meg Wallace), returning to their picturesque beach house property sometime after the death of their young son, who drowned in the sea outside their home.  Danielle has not been able to be in the house since then, and Connor is trying to cope with his own grief while also attempting to forestall his wife’s emotional unravelling. A massive storm is forecast to hit the area, and Connor needs to batten down the hatches. But he’s hampered by Danielle hearing weird noises from the sea outside, along with odd omens of despair and sorrow around the area.

When the storm arrives unexpectedly early, the couple is trapped in their house — and they subsequently find themselves in an unusual landscape. Here’s where the drama takes an odd twist and hits its unnervingly eerie stride. Connor finds himself blinded in the snow, tormented by a gigantic talking black bird (an incredibly spooky Edgar Allen Poe IV), while Danielle can’t figure out why she seems trapped at a crazy tea party hosted by a sugary old woman (Mary Burkin) and her inexplicably venomous companion (Georgan George).  Meanwhile, their long- lost son (a wonderfully organic Buddy Handleson) finds himself stranded in a limbo-like place, writing long letters to his parents which the spiteful mailman (Poe again) shreds after he takes them.

Although the first half, filled with repetitious situations and long-winded dialogue, is awkwardly paced, the transition to the fantastical world of the second act is quite compelling.  The later scenes are profoundly haunting, particularly when Knightly and Wallace’s steadfastly “normal” characters find themselves in increasingly bizarre circumstances. This is a good, crackling ghost story that engenders escalating unease as Yockey unspools his story.

Knightly and Wallace offer aptly pitched performances as the grieving couple, and Handleson is delightful as their lost son.  However, Burkin and Poe are both so downright weird that they steal every scene they’re in.

Avery Schreiber Playhouse, 4934 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 12. (323) 860-6569 or Running time: two hours with an intermission.