Human stories, big issues

February 18, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Theater Latté Da takes on a play informed by music, but it's not your standard musical theater.

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."