I sometimes think that creative writing — whether it is a play, a screenplay or a novel — has a lot in common with creative cooking.
You start with a theory of what you want a dish to look like and taste like. You use the best ingredients you can find. You determine how those ingredients will blend. You perfect your technique. And then you bring everything together to let the flavors and textures come together, to synthesize into something new and interesting When all comes together, the dish is gorgeous, delicious and satisfying. When one or more of the elements is missing, your masterpiece can become a mess.
"Glacial Genes" by Molly Best Tinsley, the new play at Oregon Stage Works and directed by Artistic Director Peter Alzado, came out of OSW's Playwrights Unit, a workshop community that supports and encourages local writers. Tinsley is a well-known area writer with a number of awards to her credit. But this play still needs a lot of work.
"Glacial Genes" tries to examine important contemporary themes: global warming, the scarcity of resources on an overpopulated planet and the intimacy necessary in successful personal relationships. Unfortunately, the characters through whom Tinsley speaks to these issues don't engage us. They don't measure up to the insights we are supposed to receive.
Our protagonist, Nan (Julie Excell), is the manager of a sperm bank in Washington, D.C. As the play opens, the entire region seems to be inexplicably plunging into a sudden ice age. (One of the characters gives the reason why it is global warming that has created this sudden freeze but the analysis is pretty arcane and sort of drops down a hole in the action of the play.) Food is rapidly becoming scarce (Crippled transportation? Failing crops? It just sounds better?) The overtaxed power grid keeps failing. Understandably, there aren't many couples looking for fertility treatments and there aren't many outstanding candidates volunteering for the donor list.
Nan believes her mission is to create "perfect babies." She just adores babies. By this, she means offspring from only attractive, purebred, white, intellectual, donors. Her "perfect babies" will, of course, be the ones who find a solution to the world's problems, so that the poor, starving, less perfect children being brought into a collapsing world will be able to survive.
Yes, she really says this.
We have just elected as our 44th president a man who refers to himself as "a mutt" and our playwright has her principal character proclaim this philosophy as the various themes of the play are being resolved. It definitely left the audience breathless.
Nan's teenage daughter Melissa (Kyanna Kuriyama) thinks she has become pregnant by using her father's dirty towels. (Yes, this play would have you believe that a high-school age girl really thinks this is a possibility.) Melissa's confidant is her English teacher, Zoe (Mera Summers) who is, understandably, worried about the girl's family relationships. Melissa, who can't seem to ever get her mother's undivided attention, has only one friend, Teddy (Jesse Sharpe), the son of Nan's boss. Teddy is sweet and supportive and also not getting much attention from his self-absorbed parents.
Nan's boss, Theo (Eric Kresh), the owner of the politically incorrect sperm bank, might be selling genetic perfection but his obsession is really just sex. With anyone or anything, at any time.
Nan's ex-husband, Michael (William Churchill), is a self-important preening gynecologist who has little time for his patients and less time for his daughter.
Into Nan's messy world arrives Rex (Sam King), a half-Navajo potential sperm donor who is immediately rejected for "the list." He is empathetic, intelligent and funny. Nan is attracted to him in spite of her fear of any close emotional connection. Her solution? She tries to set him up as a sperm donor for Zoe — who, it seems, isn't as picky as the usual customer.
Playwright Tinsley does have a deft hand for witty dialogue and intriguing situations. But her themes here are too disparate to satisfactorily come together.
Rex, the half-Navajo turns out to be a sort of shaman. He is supposed to connect to everything and everyone and bring them together. That's what his dialogue indicates and that is what Sam King's charming performance tries to convey. Unfortunately, the rest of the play does not bear this out. The "let's all come together and commune with Mother Earth and Father Sky" ending arrives from left field and nothing — neither the weather nor the intimate relationships — is resolved.
Director Alzado has done an admirable job with this imperfect vehicle. The actors are all fine, especially Kyanna Kuriyama and King. Julie Excell has the thankless job of trying to make a detached and unemotional protagonist seem sympathetic and she has some good moments.
The best thing about "Glacial Genes" is the scenic design by Janet Greek and Alzado. Icy blue lighting, a stark gray-blue backdrop and sparse chairs and tables set the mood from the beginning. As befitting the coming Ice Age, the actors wear parkas, boots and wool hats. They are constantly rubbing their hands together, wrapping themselves in scarves. Bits of ominous radio or TV newscasts introduce scenes various scenes, portending doom. If nothing else, the play manages to convey cold — both in the sense of weather and lack of emotion.
Oregon Stage Works and Peter Alzado are to be commended for encouraging new work and local playwrights. Unfortunately, "Glacial Genes" needs a lot more input before its next public production.
"Glacial Genes" is at OSW until Sunday. For more information, call 482-2334.