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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

A Texas Town Revisited

Playwright looks to her roots for inspiration for 'Slumber Party.'

March 13, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before the Road Theatre Company moved into its new facility at North Hollywood's Lankershim Arts Center, the group occupied an out-of-the-way, cozy venue in a Van Nuys warehouse.

It was there that they produced one of their most successful plays, Brady Sewell Thomas' "The Chisholm Trail Went Through Here," an examination of life in central Texas just after World War II.

"Chisholm" concerned members of a family and how life in the arid Texas plains affected them. Thomas' new play, opening this weekend at the Road Theatre, is called "Slumber Party." It's also a family play but framed in an entirely different way.

Thomas began writing "Slumber Party" during the Road's run of "Chisholm," after a trip home. Home is Decatur, Texas, near Fort Worth.

"Going home to Texas, and seeing the changes that had happened, planted the seed," the playwright says. "Just the physical changes and the things people were interested in. It had been a long time since I had spent time in my hometown."

The pivotal event in the play is based on reality. A friend of Thomas' had a heart attack. None of the subsequent events in the play took place in real life, Thomas says, but she was fascinated by the fact that her friend was in denial, as though the heart attack had never happened. It wasn't very long after that that he had a fatal heart attack.

"He just continued all his bad habits," Thomas explains, "and his lifestyle, and it didn't affect him at all. I was intrigued by that. He just lived as though it wasn't going to happen."

The story that unfolds in "Slumber Party" is smaller in scale than that of "Chisholm." The heart-attack victim sends for his high-school sweetheart. At the same time, the town is hit by a "blue norther," one of those Texas ice storms that immobilize life, as well as the man's two ex-wives and his alcoholic daughter. The result, Thomas says, is a journey for the women, a journey of discovery.

The characters are not the same as those in "Chisholm Trail," Thomas says, but the action takes place in exactly the same spot in Texas.

"I wanted to question and explore what would happen in that same spot generations later. That was really how it started. 'Chisholm Trail' started with the characters more than anything else. This play began with the question of how does the land shape the people, or how does the modern consciousness shape the people who live in that place now?"

She found that, generation after generation, people are shaped in many of the same ways. The family in "Chisholm Trail," for instance, lived during the legendary oil wildcatting days in Texas, the days of Glenn McCarthy (inspiration for the James Dean character in "Giant"), but the sensibilities of the characters in "Slumber Party" are not that different a couple of generations later. They've grown in the same soil.

Thomas' attention to detail in dialogue and action is one of the things that originally attracted director Taylor Gilbert to "Chisholm Trail." Gilbert directed that play and is also guiding "Slumber Party."

She recalls first meeting Thomas in a restaurant to discuss directing "Chisholm." The director says she ordered something that wasn't on the menu, but doesn't remember what. Thomas remembers--eggs Florentine.

Gilbert laughs. That is what good writers do, she says. It's the kind of detail that gives Thomas' writing its reality and honesty.

"You can really get in touch with all of these characters," Gilbert says. "You either have a part of them in you, or you know someone who's exactly like them. I've always been drawn to Brady's plays, certainly, because of the dialogue. That's one of the reasons I was so excited about being able to do something else of Brady's. We have some sort of camaraderie, and the kind of backgrounds that meld."

BE THERE

"Slumber Party" is at the Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Ends April 20. $15. (818) 761-8838.

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