Song of Extinction at the Dowling Studio: Examining the death of a family

March 2, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Young teenager Max Forrestal is a mess. He shows up to school day after day in the same dirty clothes. He is rake thin, as if he hasn't eaten in days. He appears content to hide in the back of the class, duct-taped cello case at his side, listening to his iPod rather than the teacher—when he bothers to show up.

Most of his teachers are willing to just ignore the symptoms of a student in crisis, except for biology instructor Khim Phan. At the same age as Max, Khim lived through Cambodia's killing fields, and he recognizes someone on the verge of a personal extinction.

Their relationship lives at the core of E.M. Lewis's Song of Extinction, which—despite some shortcomings—gets a powerful and moving reading from Theatre Latte Da. That's fostered in part by remarkable performances from Dan Piering as Max and David Mura as Khim, along with a staging that never blinks in the face of deep pain.

Max's problems are fueled by his parents. His father, Ellery (John Middleton), is obsessed with saving a species of insect from extinction at the hands of an "evil" developer (Gary Geiken, whose character is bad because, in part, he wears very ugly pants while playing golf) and barely acknowledges his son. His mother, Lily (Carla Noack), is in the final stages of cancer, and her extinction weighs heavily on Max's mind.

Lewis does everything short of underlining these themes onstage, and that sometimes makes for clunky drama. The evil developer is the worst example of this, doing nothing more than serving as a point of conflict than being a fully realized character like the rest of the cast.

Still, the core drama of a family facing their own Armageddon fuels the play, and Lewis writes with a deft touch. There's no lingering, warmhearted goodbye here, just the harsh fluorescent hospital light and a doctor (Matt Rein) who appears as lost as the Forrestals.

Making his professional debut, Piering gives a natural, nuanced performance as Max. His anger and pain are always near the surface and explode at the smallest provocation, but Piering never moves into melodrama. His focus fuels several of the show's best moments, especially the final minutes, when the cello comes out of the case and Max finally is able to get beyond his anger and into his sorrow. The piece, composed by longtime Latte Da music director Denise Prosek, reflects that perfectly, while Piering plays it as Max would—full of anger and passion.

The rest of the cast delve deep into their characters as well. Mura's lonely biology teacher is so haunted by his past that he has been left just a shell, someone who inhabits a home full of empty "spare rooms." The journey of Noack's Lily takes her into a drug-fueled trip back to Bolivia and then, with the help of Mura's gentle voice, on to her own final journey.

As you can guess, Song of Extinction isn't a joy ride, but director Peter Rothstein gives the piece his signature stamp, helping the audience find the real humanity behind the stark hospital room and lonely home that Max inhabits.