Read your e-mails. Peter Rothstein was browsing a post from publisher Samuel French, chock full of two-sentence descriptions of available plays, when something caught his eye. "Song of Extinction" mixed music, science, personal loss and a father-son relationship. It went to places that Rothstein's Theater Latté Da normally does not go. He will direct a production that opens Saturday at the Guthrie's Studio.
Written by E.M. Lewis, "Song of Extinction" won the 2009 new play award from the American Theater Critics Association, following its Los Angeles premiere. It focuses on a young cellist whose mother is dying of cancer, and a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust who takes a sympathetic interest in the boy. The boy's father, a botanist, is fighting a developer whose plans for a South American rain forest would destroy the last insects of a particular species.
Throughout, the boy plays his cello until at play's end, he performs the title song in its entirety.
"It's epic and claustrophobic," Rothstein said, referring to the global and personal expressions of loss. "I think of the whole production as a fugue with a constant heartbeat of time."
Latté Da's production features poet David Mura as Kim Phan, a biology professor who befriends 15-year-old Max (newcomer Dan Piering). John Middleton is Max's father, and Karla Noack plays the ailing mother.
Lewis, who teaches at Princeton University, has a history of writing about heavy subjects. "Heads" was an Iraq war hostage drama that won the 2008 Primus Prize for an emerging female theater artist. Her first play, "Infinite Black Suitcase," focused on grief and redemption in rural Oregon, her home state. She wasn't setting out, with "Song of Extinction," to write something about death, necessarily.
"I wondered, is there a science play inside me?" she said. "All these characters dropped into my head once I thought of science -- interlocking stories of extinction of species, and a biology professor dealing with extinction at a local level."
Lewis also had specific ideas about certain aspects of those characters. She wanted Max to be a composer, gifted in music. And she wanted Kim to be a survivor of genocide.
Her subconscious reasons never made themselves terribly evident to herself, nor did these impulses clarify who should be the protagonist.
"It's hard for me to say who the main character is," she said. "Kim is the storyteller, but the focal point is this boy and what's going on with him."
A good part of her affinity for Kim stemmed from the research she did on the Cambodian genocide. In the late 1970s, an estimated 2 million Cambodians died from murder, starvation, torture and disease under the brutal Khmer Rouge. Figured as a percentage of the country's population (7 million), the Cambodian holocaust was the 20th century's ghastliest regime. In Lewis' play, Kim wrestles with this legacy and the fate of his extended family.
"The character of Kim Phan was the character of my heart," she said. "His monologues wrote themselves in a way that surprised me. The possibility of grace is where my heart was, particularly."
Another element of the play was more familiar to Lewis when she started the play. Max's father's battle with the land developer is one of those flash points just made for an environmentalist to climb aboard a soapbox. Lewis, however, gives the developer a voice in the argument: He's creating jobs for poor farmers and if it comes at the expense of an insect, so be it.
That's because Lewis, who grew up on an Oregon farm loving the outdoors, knew families whose economic livelihood depended on the logging industry.
"They were real people to me and I went to school with them," she said. "So I grew up with both sides of that, even though personally I come out on the side of the trees. We're losing more than we know when we devastate our world."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299