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Winding Trail to the Stage : Post-Civil War story of a Texas family, written in 1979, is having its professional premiere.

July 01, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

VAN NUYS — The Chisholm Trail actually did run through the flat, vast North Texas farmland where playwright Brady Thomas was born in the early 1950s. Thus, even the title of Thomas' play--"The Chisholm Trail Went Through Here," opening tonight at the Road Theatre--suggests the deep roots of her family saga in a fading West.

And like the winding 19th-Century cattle route that stretched from the southern reaches of the Lone Star State to the railroad at Abilene, Kan., the route of Thomas' "Chisholm Trail" from page to stage has been long and difficult.

Although Thomas wrote her play while she was a graduate student in UCLA's theater arts program in 1979, the Road is hosting its professional world premiere. "We couldn't believe that it hadn't been done by another professional theater," says director and Road co-artistic director Taylor Gilbert. "It's just too strong a piece not to have been produced before. So, I guess we're lucky."

Lucky, and with the right connection: Gilbert's Road partner, Brad Hills, had known about "Chisholm Trail" for a long time, since he too had attended UCLA's theater program. He's kept his eye on the script, he says, ever since.

Thomas, though, had to live with what she describes as the "crazy" treatment of her script since it was staged twice in UCLA student productions.

With the bustle of the first tech rehearsal day buzzing around her as she sits in the Road's business office, Thomas tells a history that could stand as a cautionary tale for any would-be playwright.

"I felt pressure to write something commercial, which then meant like Neil Simon or some kind of New York apartment drama," she says. "I tried that, and my teacher hated it. I was desperate to come up with something for the class, but the only idea I had was something I'd thought of as a multi-generational Texas farmland novel, starting after the Civil War and ending during the oil wildcat days after World War II.

"My teacher liked this, but I couldn't imagine how I could contain so many visual elements and shove them into the single setting of a farmhouse kitchen."

The "dusty windows" of this kitchen, as Thomas describes them in her play notes, "offer a view of emptiness." The land of the Rucker family farm couldn't support cattle in 1947, a time of great transition, Thomas says, when the old cattle-ranching ways had collapsed and the wartime industry had swept people off the land and into nearby cities like Fort Worth. (Ironically, years later, that very wealth helped resuscitate cattle ranching in the region.)

The playwright, born near Decatur, Tex., drew upon her relatives for her broad range of characters--from stalwart Mae ("She is my grandmother") and eccentric, hard-of-hearing Josie to clashing brothers Bryan and Buck. Throughout the intertwining plots, Mae witnesses almost all the family members leave the farm, including her cherished young niece, Jo Beth.

*

"Except for Mae and Josie," says Thomas, "I changed names and made composite characters, but I knew these people like they're in my blood. Their like will never be here again." That sense of a lost era, she realizes, links her closely with author Larry McMurtry ("The Last Picture Show"), whose literary Texas territory lies just west of her own.

"You know, I always saw this as a comedy, but then during the UCLA productions, I saw audience members crying. It seemed that they were crying for Mae, her desire to hang on even when Buck declares that 'this land is sick.' "

Thomas now openly regrets that she devoted more than a decade to graduate work and university teaching at Washington State, New York's Hamilton College and the University of Kentucky.

"It took me much too far away from writing, because when you teach theater and directing, you're in class all day, and in the theater all night," she says. "It didn't make it any easier having had professional credits in acting (at Houston's Alley Theatre and San Diego's Old Globe), because students would come to me for advice, and other academics would become jealous."

Things didn't go any more smoothly for her play. After the UCLA shows, "Chisholm Trail" was snatched up by the Manhattan Theatre Club as part of a workshop production festival. "I had deliberately constructed the play musically, with slow passages as relief. But I was shy and not very aggressive, and I didn't fight back when the workshop directors wanted the slow stuff cut--'Just to see how it works,' they said.

"Of course, all they had then were the fast parts, and they told me it was too late to reinsert the cut scenes. That's when I learned how playwrights are rewritten and usurped, despite what every playwright is told about 'owning your play.' "

Thomas says she feels much safer at the Road. Her play is being done intact, "with some trimming here and there--and let me tell you, it needed it!" she says.

Its familial core is "right at the heart of what we want to do at this theater," says Gilbert, who cites a string of past Road Theatre family plays such as "Vig" and "The Walkers" as part of the group's focus on ensemble theater.

"What's wonderful in Brady's writing," Gilbert adds, "is that it looks backward to a real heartland spirit, and also forward, to the themes of poisoning the land and greed. And she also constructs a full story for every one of her (11) characters. You don't see that very often on a stage."

Where and When

What: "The Chisholm Trail Went Through Here."

Location: The Road Theatre, 14141 Covello St., 9-D, Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Ends Aug. 7.

Price: $12.50.

Call: (818) 785-6175.

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