STUDIO CITY — Welcome to a day in the life of an ordinary Oklahoma family. But this is no ordinary day.
"It's an unusual day, in that some of the basic rules of time have been suspended," says playwright Eric Ehn, whose dark comedy "AOK (Anarchy in the Oklahoma Kingdom)" opens tonight at the Two Roads Theatre. "The father is out digging in the garden when he hits a 'timeline'--and time leaks out, goes a little nuts. At one point, the characters are having a present-tense conversation, and then the past comes welling up, and they're remembering their first date or first betrayal."
The characters include Justin and Lee, their son Warren (who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome), Justin's daughter by a long-ago affair with next-door neighbor Judy, and Lee's grandmother. "In a small Oklahoma town, you never get very far from your past," notes the writer, 36, a native of Croton, N.Y. "My mother's family is in Oklahoma, and at the end of (my) high school, she decided to move back there. So it's kind of a fairy tale place for me--I know it only from the few summers I spent working there."
The play was brought to director Mark York by a friend with Oklahoma roots.
"When I read the first draft, I thought, 'What are we getting ourselves into?' " recalls York, who's been working on the piece since last summer. "It's very poetic, kind of inaccessible on the page, really artsy and lyrical. But once I heard it out loud, it began to make sense and be tragic and funny; it's just a ball. Eric is a very adaptable guy--he likes to collaborate. And we've got a wonderful score by John Ballinger. The fun for me has been in the development."
For the past three years, Ehn has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, dividing his time between Santa Clara University and San Francisco State, where he teaches playwriting. "It's so healthy, teaching undergraduates," he says earnestly. "Many of them are new to writing. You have to underline the fundamental principles of the craft. A lot of the time, I feel like \o7 I'm\f7 going to school. In graduate school, I think, you lose your simplicity. And theater requires simplicity, a sense of play."
Before moving West, Ehn ran a New York school for physically disabled adults, the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped.
"When you're working with a group with a range of disabilities--people in wheelchairs and blind people--you have to find physical warm-ups that (adapt to) a number of bodies," notes the writer, who has a bachelor's degree in English from Yale University and a master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Yale School of Drama. "After graduate school I realized I'd been in school too long. I was trained to write for hypothetical spaces, abstract reason. It was like 'playwriting is so unremunerative, so ephemeral--why do it?' "
Ehn, who was commissioned to write "Gravity's Drain" for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 and served as literary manager at Berkeley Rep from 1991-93, found his answer in the work itself.
"I came to see playwriting as social action--political--and I go where theater needs to be," says Ehn, who spends one day each week holding open-to-the-public workshops at San Francisco's Tenderloin Reflection Center. "It may not be the ideal tool of revolution, but it does organize people socially. It causes them to come together to create beauty. That reflex to assemble, to affirm community, is very powerful, very invigorating. Theater is about change: The text is changing, the words are changing, the people are changing."
LIAISON: WHERE AND WHEN
What: "AOK (Anarchy in the Oklahoma Kingdom)."
Location: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City.
Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays through April 30.
Price: $8 previews, $10 regular admission.
Call: (818) 766-9381.