You can be forgiven for having great expectations for The Waiting Period, Brian Copeland's new solo show at the Marsh. His last play, 2004's Not a Genuine Black Man, became the longest-running solo show in Bay Area history. A chronicle of his family's 1970s move to all-white San Leandro, it featured vividly rendered characters, insightful observations about race relations then and now, novelistic jumps in time, and a masterful mix of comedy and pathos.
By the time I caught it, in the last year of its seven-year run, Copeland's show had acquired an almost mythic quality. Performer and audience alike had made it into one of our great collective stories. Though Copeland made us look hard at a shameful part of our past, he also told his story with such understanding of everyone in it that he helped us to look forward. The mood at the performance I attended had as much in common with church as it did with theater.
In its own way, The Waiting Period is also a story that's been told before and should be told again. Copeland explicitly revealed as much after his curtain call. "I have an agenda," he said. "A lot of people hurt." And if he can tell strangers about his hurting, perhaps you can tell someone about yours.
The show's title refers to the 10 days California law requires gun purchasers to wait before actually getting a firearm. For Copeland, that meant 10 more days before he could use that gun to end his life.
Grounded in that time period, the show gives an honest, unflinching look at depression. For sufferers like Copeland, the simplest tasks become impossible. Once, while buying a jar of spaghetti sauce at Safeway to make his daughter her favorite dinner, he abandoned his full cart, walked out of the store, and retreated to the safety of his bed, where he passed the day watching the sun move across the sky. Even the most well-meaning interventions and rational responses — "Don't you know how lucky you are?" — lost meaning in the face of violent emptiness.
But in true Copeland form, the narrative also jumps back and forth in time and among divergent points of view, painting a richer picture of depression. Copeland becomes a teenager who mutilates herself for a high, and an older man who once tried to kill himself over a girl, only to be helped by that girl's new boyfriend. With remarkable fluidity, he also makes asides into stand-up that ease the crowd through the more shudder-inducing stories. One moment he describes the way a cutter tries to hide the blood dots on her shirt; the next, he cracks, "If they ever find a cure for depression, Chinese take-out is fucked."
As the show progresses, however, those digressions prove more interesting than Copeland's main story. We already know how it's going to end. ("I know what you're thinking," Copeland jokes at one point. "'You don't suppose he dies at the end, do you?'") His tale of triumph over adversity is by its nature moving and inspiring, but on stage it feels rushed and forced. Setting the play in the 10-day waiting period means that Copeland has to credibly pull a psychological 180 in a very short time. Often he pushes that transformation along with clichés — a conversation with a priest, a visit from a mysterious voice during a long walk — that lack his characteristic nuance, surprise and depth.
I don't doubt Copeland's honesty, and The Waiting Period serves as salutary reminder for the depressed and friends of the depressed alike (which just about covers all of us). But the play's overt social mission and some storytelling shortcuts prevent it from achieving the complexity that Copeland is capable of. This new play is a fine drama, but it's not a mythic one.