March 2, 2011.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.
The avoidance of pain is a core human instinct. But to what lengths will people go to dodge difficult truths? In "Song of Extinction" — a very good new play by EM Lewis — almost all of the characters are trying to bury their pain in something else, be it music, teaching or even entomology.
But these truths eventually must be confronted, and when the characters do so, it turns into powerful theater. "Song of Extinction" is receiving its area premiere from Theater Latte Da in a production filled with compassion for its characters and a delicate touch that makes it a very moving drama.
While Theater Latte Da is known for producing musicals, this play is light on music, most of it emanating from the cello of Dan Piering. He plays Max, a high school student whose mother is in her final days of a battle with cancer. Music is his escape, while his father retreats into an obsession with saving a species of insect he has discovered.
Filled with anger and despair, Max is a prime candidate for self-destruction until his Cambodian biology teacher intervenes. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Khim Phan employs straight talk and as much love as his damaged heart can offer to try to get Max's mind back on his schoolwork.
To the credit of author Lewis and director Peter Rothstein, no point is belabored, no audience member bludgeoned with a message. For a work with so many layers, it's nevertheless almost minimalist in structure, its dialogue convincingly realistic, its tone admirably restrained.
Latte Da's production features six strong performances, particularly from David Mura as the teacher who provides the work's philosophical center and Carla Noack, who makes the emotional and physical pain of Max's mother equally evident. But also compelling are Piering and John Middleton, who have the toughest terrain to traverse as a father and son responding to their helplessness by lashing out at one another.
Only Lewis' decision to make an eco-unfriendly CEO such a cartoonish villain keeps the work from being an unqualified triumph. But it's pretty darn close.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at rhubbard@ pioneerpress.com
What: Theater Latte Da's production of "Song of Extinction" by EM Lewis
When: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday; through March 20
Where: The Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.
Tickets: $30-$22, available at 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Capsule: A strong new play, a moving production.