Brian Copeland has a lot going on. His last one-man show at the Marsh, Not a Genuine Black Man, ran off and on for seven years, setting a record for the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history. The longtime standup comic also hosts KGO radio’s Brian Copeland Show and ABC’s 7Live TV talk show. But he’s also struggled with crushing depression, as detailed in his long-anticipated new solo show The Waiting Period, which opened its world premiere run last Saturday at the Marsh after a few weeks of previews. The play captures a particularly dark period after his grandmother died, he totaled his car, and his wife left without explanation. The title refers to the ten-day waiting period required by buy a gun, which Copeland is only shopping for in case he wants to do himself in.
It’s grim, sobering subject matter, which makes it all the more remarkable that the show is tremendously entertaining, as funny as it is sad and thought-provoking. Copeland tackles popular misconceptions about depression in a beautifully non-didactic way, and he strikes a perfect balance between surprising hilarity and appropriate sobriety. Developed with director David Ford, it’s an elegantly crafted narrative, deftly performed.
Copeland opens with a humorous riff about places you don’t want to be seen by anyone you know, which brings us right into the gun shop he’s entering for the first time, manned by a surfer-voiced counter guy and a gruff, gravelly regular customer. Right away Copeland sets the tone for the piece with a series of droll asides (“I think anyone who loves the Confederacy should only be paid in Confederate money”) and amusing character voices. “I know nothing about guns,” he says, “but I know the word revolver because it’s the name of a Beatles album.” And just as soon as he sets us at ease with all the joshing around—or at least as much at ease as we can be in a gun shop—he drops the bomb when talking about how many bullets would be included with the gun. “If I can’t figure this thing out in the next ten days, I’m only going to need one.”
As nail-bitingly troubling as that disclosure it, it proves an excellent framing device for talking about Copeland’s attempt to work through his depression, setting the stakes as high as can be. He talks about not being able to muster the energy to cook for his kids (“You know, if they ever figure out a cure for depression, Chinese takeout is fucked”) and about his escalating frustration with people always asking how he is. He peppers the story with funny encounters with a Superman-voiced, far-too-perfect stay-at-home dad; an overwhelmingly animated shrink; a chirpy high school student; a gushy school events coordinator; a laid-back friend who checks in on him; his understanding children; a down-to-earth priest.
Copeland also embodies a couple of people he interviewed about their own stories about depression, an upbeat teenage girl who cuts herself and a Jackie Gleason-voiced older guy. Their voices add a lot to the resonance of the narrative, but they appear to be people Copeland interviewed only to amass more material for the show, and it would be nice if they related more directly to the overall arc of him processing his own depression.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Copeland tells us after one of the darker passages. “‘You don’t suppose that he actually dies at the end, do you?’” It’s a deeply personal story told with just the right amount of distance—sure, we can laugh about it now. At times it’s heartrending, at other times hilarious and deeply redemptive. It’s also terribly valuable in emphasizing many important points in a way that serves the story and is not at all preachy: that if you’re depressed, and especially if you’ve ever contemplated suicide, you need to talk to someone about it; that depression is a disease and all the seemingly sensible just-snap-out-of-it talk in the world can’t get through when someone’s in the depths of it, even if they know and agree with all of it. It’s a play I’d strongly recommend to anyone who is now or has ever been depressed or who knows someone in that situation. But honestly, it’s such a strong piece that I’d recommend it just as heartily to anyone who’s ever been human.
Show #24 of 2012, attended February 25.