It begins, as things sometimes do in Normal, IL: Mark Kenward's mother, an over-wrought and frequently impulsive woman, announces she wants to move to the New England island paradise of Nantucket.

Almost immediately, the family takes off for the island known for its use in limericks at the behest of Dad. The Kenward Family father is a firm believer in the adage normally seen on T-shirts and kitchen plaques: "If mama ain't happy, nobody's happy."

And, as we soon learn in "Nantucket," an astounding, funny and breathtaking solo show by Kenward, now a grown man in his 40s, Mama isn't happy for very long anywhere.

Mark is an elementary school-aged boy with a charming curiosity who delights in the quaint town and his history, which includes the classic tale of Moby Dick. At the same time, he lives in the terror known only by youngsters who have moved to a new town, about a tradition that probably dates back to the cavemen, and calls for all the other boys to beat the crap out of the new kid every chance they get.

A lucky punch turns the constant battle into an uneasy peace and places young Mark near the bottom of the popularity rankings at school, something, again, created by the invisible and cruel mysterious hand of fate. So, he bumps along like most of the kids until his mother gets a job at the high school, where she becomes a teacher who is criminally strict, or so say the students say, but highly respected by the faculty.


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The piece, which plays at The Marsh in Berkeley through July 19, moves along delightfully as Kenward recalls the bittersweet past with an eye for detail and an ear for the funny parts of his life. And, there are many -- tales of his football career, the uneasy humor between Mom, who quietly seethes, and Pop, who jokes and kids, knowing Mom doesn't like it.

It moves that way through the first act as an endearing and skilled memoir of a time completely familiar, yet with vague, ominous overtones.

Intermission comes, and the audience is in a good mood, so it can enjoy the sandwiches that are included in the ticket price, and return, refreshed and well-fed for the final act.

Then, almost as soon as the lights go down, Mom does something violent and terrible -- life-changing terrible. So profound is this act, members of the audience gasp. The mood switch takes only a moment, but it is an astounding theatrical creation by Kenward and director Rebecca Fisher, who has paced the show brilliantly. Unfortunately, (especially for one who doesn't like keeping secrets) details of the second act can't be revealed. It's a moment that must be witnessed.

After creating several solo shows, Kenward has become a master of the craft, not only spinning an engaging and captivating yarn, but taking full advantage of movement, gesture, facial expression, right down to the slightest glance, to serve the story. He is a wonder to watch.

Kenward has certainly told his own story well, and in a broader sense, it's a universal tale of growing up, and the prying into long-forgotten memories for anyone who has experienced the joys, tragedies and self-manufactured boredom of stumbling toward adulthood.

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"NANTUCKET"
Written and performed by Mark Kenward and directed by Rebecca Fisher for The Marsh
When: Through July 19.
Where: The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Tickets: $25-$100 (including picnic dinner), 415-282-3055, or www.themarsh.org.