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A Family Odyssey : In attempt to define American mythology, "Carbondale Dreams" explores the yearning for happiness--and the failure to find it.

March 06, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The theater, in some ways, has become inhospitable to new plays. There's so little money, so few opportunities. The laws of art and commerce just aren't the same.

Some playwrights defect to film or TV, but others remain dedicated to their first love, because only on stage is the writer in full control of the statements his work will make.

Steven Sater is one of the dedicated.

It took a full dozen years for Sater to find his playwriting voice. The Evansville, Ind.-native, completed a master's at Princeton in classical literature, but by then realized that his future was as a dramatist.

With his background steeped in Greek drama and Shakespeare, though, it's not surprising that Sater would seek out the mythic qualities in the American experience. He believes he has discovered something close to it in his quartet of plays that follow the odyssey of one family through the trials of life in these United States.

One of that quartet, "Carbondale Dreams," opens in its Los Angeles premiere this weekend at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts in North Hollywood. The other three, "Perfect for You, Doll," "Asylum" and "Pearl's Tears" likely will not be far behind--either at the Meisner or elsewhere in Los Angeles.

The plays are about a generic family, Sater explains, which has absorbed some details from his own relatives and other families he has known. Sater is attempting to define the same American mythology that Eugene O'Neill tried to capture through a New England family--a project O'Neill never completed.

"They all create a sort of mythology," Sater says, "the myths of a culture, writing about a family. I wanted to find a way of creating a mythology that was America."

The mythic archetypes he seeks, however, are hard to chisel out of a country that celebrates its diversity.

"One thing I sort of think," Sater says, "is that this country is founded on dreams. So many people came with this dream of religious freedom. All these different cultures came to America with a dream--making it rich, whatever it is. They're all the American dream.

"This play is all about the longings of these people for lives they can't lead, and where the dreams are delusional and sort of lead them astray. I don't say that this is the deep story of America, but this play is certainly an attempt to understand this, this dream of family happiness, of individual yearning in this country."

Sater explains that in "Carbondale Dreams" the three acts chart the fortunes of three family members over the course of one day. "You see these three people brought to the brink of seeing themselves, and they all fail," he says.

As a matter of fact, all four of the plays in the series deal with the same people--but in different incarnations. In "Carbondale," the character Candy is an engaging daughter-in-law. In "Perfect for You, Doll," she wears a more comic mark, but in "Asylum" she almost achieves the tragic size of a woman such as O'Neill's Mary Tyrone.

The four plays obviously are different in tone, Sater says. He insists that they can be very funny, but with the humor of honest humanity, not one-liners.

"These plays are not laugh machines," Sater says, chuckling. "There are a lot of self-delusional people in them, and their ideas of themselves are funny, incongruous. There's definitely a black comedy edge."

It is partly that edge, but mostly the honest humanity that attracted Meisner artistic director Martin Barter to Sater's plays. They are the kind of plays Meisner himself appreciated.

"We're always on the lookout for the kind of playwrights we like," Barter says. "What attracted me is the humanity. It's very real. It really melds with our work, and Steven's writing leads the actors to it. And Steven writes very musically. . . . It's everything we look for in a playwright. Something human. Something social."

And it seems Meisner's modified Method technique is what Sater has been looking for as well.

"There's a transformation that happens," Sater says referring to the rehearsal process, "from a play being a literary event to being a theatrical event, which is part of the joy of being a playwright, when the words become part of the actors' bodies. It's incarnation. It becomes flesh."

BE THERE

"Carbondale Dreams," Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Ends April 20. $12. (818) 509-9651.

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