High times with Ram Dass

Courtesy PhotoWarren David Keith plays counter-culture hero Ram Dass in the enlightening “Acid Test” at The Marsh in Berkeley.

It’s not unusual for monologists to open with the line “Thank you for being here.” In “Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass,” Warren David Keith starts off by saying “Thank you for being here … now.”

It’s an apt introduction to Lynne Kaufman’s humorous, gently affecting one-man show about the former Richard Alpert, who dropped acid with Timothy Leary, changed his name to Ram Dass and wrote the 1971 book “Be Here Now.”

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The 90-minute play, which made its world premiere last weekend at the Marsh, features Keith as the onetime Harvard professor who encouraged a generation of spiritual seekers to follow their bliss.

He led by example. Along with Leary, Ram Dass began experimenting with LSD at Harvard — and was sacked after he dispensed it to his graduate students (the college, he proudly notes, hadn’t fired another tenured professor since Ralph Waldo Emerson).

From there, he and Leary blazed a wild trail. The show’s early scenes recount their adventures in rollicking detail — a hallucinogenic baseball game in Mexico, the commune they started in provincial Newton, Mass.

Eventually, he heads to India, where he meets the Hindu master who gives him his name (Ram Dass means servant of God).

Yet he’s unable to follow the guru’s advice to “love everyone.” An old rift with health writer Andrew Weil nags at him, as does his split with Leary (Ram Dass is bisexual; Leary didn’t approve).  When it’s time to call up his higher self, he says, “I’m flunking the test.”

Compassion comes when he returns home to care for his dying father — and when he himself has a stroke. Still suffering from aphasia, he settles into a kind of peace.

Kaufman, a San Francisco playwright, builds the narrative in short, effective scenes, and director Joel Mullenix paces it for maximum impact. Lighting by Erich Blazeski and projections by Kelley Watts enhance the sparely set stage.

Keith, one of the Bay Area’s most versatile actors, makes Ram Dass an intelligent, agreeably mild-mannered character. It’s an engaging performance, whether he’s describing a rosebud opening on his very first high, or recalling his dad’s final words.  

By the end, he admits that he still doesn’t have the answers. But “Acid Test” suggests that just being here may be enough.

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