Unexpectedly subversive: ‘Hair at the Orpheum; Latte Da’s ‘Song of Extinction’

March 2, 2011.By Max Sparber, MinnPost.

I don’t have more than a few paragraphs to talk about Theater Latté Da’s production of “Song of Extinction,” which is fine, as, at the moment, I don’t have much to say about it, except that you should see it. I’m a bit surprised to be making the suggestion, as the play does something I think plays often do very poorly right now – deal with terminal illness. And so we have a story about a gifted musical prodigy (Dan Piering) with a dying mother (Carla Noack) and a distant father (John Middleton), and there are hundreds of plays with almost exactly this sort of set up, and they usually go miserably wrong. In them, dying ennobles the terminal patient, who dispenses wisdom as her family is brought to a theatrical state of grace by experience.

Anyone who has actually been through the protracted death of a loved one knows this is a closer to wish-fulfillment than reality. Dying tends to make both the sick and the well miserable, and has a horrific knack at bringing out long-suppressed or dormant animosity. People can behave awfully toward each other when they are on their deathbed, or near the deathbed of another, and the experience of quietus is rarely one of grace and nobility, but terror and bewilderment. So it is to playwright E.M. Lewis’ great credit that the play she gives us is closer to the reality of life’s terminus than the fantasy of it. The prodigy suffers, his grades plummet, and he barely has the energy to change his clothes. The father remains distant, funneling his suffering into his efforts to prevent the extinction of a species of third-world insect. And the mother is, in essence, abandoned by these two. It’s terribly downbeat, but honestly so. And, just now, when theater’s audience is aging to the point where they are liking facing their own parents’ death, or their own, this approach is, to quote Time Magazine, more daring than ever.