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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Song of Extinction
The play is EM Lewis' Song of Extinction, now having its world premiere at (Inside) the Ford in Hollywood. It's not an easy play, dealing as it does with the extinction of species (including man), loss, longing, the passage of time, and obsession. The central figure is Max (Will Faught), a 15-year-old boy isolated, troubled, and neglected, who is obsessed with the music he has been composing in his head since he was a young child. His only companion is his viola, which he carries with him everywhere like a cumbersome security blanket.
His father, Ellery (Michael Shutt), is a biologist who has discovered a species of beetle unique to Bolivia and is obsessed with keeping its forest habitat from being destroyed by an American businessman (Trey Nichols) who only sees the money in the trees. Ellery's passion for his research has made him indifferent to his family, whom he sees as a distraction rather than as a source of comfort and support.
Meanwhile, Lily (Lori Yeghiayan), Ellery's wife and Max's mother, lies dying in a hospital bed, bitter, angry, and frightened. The two men in her life, on their infrequent visits, stand at a distance, helpless and inarticulate, afraid to approach her, as if she were dying of leprosy rather than cancer.
Finally, there is Khim Phan, (the incredible Darrell Kunitomi) Max's biology teacher, who struggles to reach the boy and shake him out of his self-imposed stupor. Phan, who escaped at 15 from the Khmer Rouge-inflicted genocide in his native Cambodia, still longs for his lost homeland after 40 years in America. He talks about the extinction of species—- some 30,000 every year—-and acknowledges that "there are things I know about extinction I don't know how to tell to my students. . . I teach them about Cambodia without saying its name."
Phan is the lyrical center of this exquisitely written play. He speaks in poetic images; for example, his memory of standing in a field of sunlit, glimmering golden butterflies that "settled on me like whispers." It is he who helps Lily return in fantasy to Bolivia, to a time in her life when there was love, and beauty, and a future full of possibility and hope.
Everything about this play is done to perfection. Heidi Helen Davis has directed the exceptional group of actors with smooth attention to detail, although several of the characters occasionally lapse into a despair that is too soft to be heard. The scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is totally ingenious: just a few accoutrements to change a setting from an office to a noodle shop, while leaving the dominant setting— Lily's hospital bed, to be brought into play or closed off by a gauze curtain that circles her bed. Further, the stage is flanked on both sides by column-high shrines filled with simple artifacts, photographic portraits, and plants representing Cambodia. And overhead, as the characters speak of Cambodia or Bolivia, projection designers Jessica Smith and Ian P. Garrett flash photographs depicting the natural beauty of those countries. Sound designer Jason Duplissea measures time with a ticking metronome that regulates the music in Max's head and then morphs into the steady beeps of the hospital machines that monitor his mother's life support system.
The most amazing element of all is the incredible music written by award-winning composer Geoffrey Pope especially for this play. Providing a background of viola fragments, the music represents the sporadic imaginings of young Max, in addition to mirroring his desperate confusion and his grief.
Song of Extinction is heavy-duty drama, a moving jolt of lives trapped in circumstances that are out of their control. Yet there is a melancholy richness and sensitivity in this beautiful play that will leave you thoughtful and speechless and will stay with you for a very long time.