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Theater: Ventura County | PREMIERE

A Difficult Path

'Castaway' traces woman's struggle to come to terms with repressed memory.


You go to the store to buy strawberries, but you come back with spaghetti. And you don't know why.

As writer Marjorie Kellogg points out, a trivial, inexplicable event like that can often be a sign of deeper problems. "It's the buoy that floats on top, the symptom. If you can travel down that line below the surface, you can begin to understand it. And recognition is the first step."

Excavating the hidden tunnels of the mind figures prominently in Kellogg's new psychological drama, "Castaway," which premiers Friday night at Santa Barbara's Alhecama Theatre. Commissioned and produced by the Ensemble Theatre Company, the play traces a successful young career woman's gradual discovery that she's repressed the pivotal event of her emotional life, and her difficult process of recapturing lost psychological territory through therapy.

Coping with mental illness is a long-running theme in Kellogg's work, which includes screenplays for Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," and the film version of Kellogg's own novel, "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon."

For Kellogg, the two disciplines--writing and psychology--are inextricable. "I've always thought of myself as a writer, and later on as a social worker," she said recently during rehearsals for "Castaway." Her early career included a stint at the copy desk of the San Francisco Chronicle, and led to a plum assignment as a European correspondent for "Salute" magazine just after World War II.

After that, she worked as a freelancer in New York, but admits she found it difficult to concentrate on her own projects when she was writing commercially all day. That's when she decided to become a social worker--obtaining her master's degree from Smith College in 1951, she says, to support her writing habit. "I figured if I went to another kind of a job, I could get up at 4 in the morning and give my best hours to my own stuff."

The combination seemed to work. Moreover, her new career proved a wellspring of material. "It was a very good source for me," she said, "working with poor people, people in trouble, people with medical and psychological problems.

"Basically," she said, "I'm interested in survival--in how people survive catastrophe or near catastrophe. Because I think that's what it's all about for all of us."

It was a very different milieu for Kellogg, who grew up in an affluent Santa Barbara farming family, a western branch of the famous Battle Creek, Mich., cereal dynasty. "It meant getting great gulps of the real world," she said.

Kellogg found what she saw both compelling and horrifying. She takes pride in the situations where she was able to help stabilize people in difficulty. "At least I was sometimes able to get people through a system that's designed in many ways not to help," she said. "When I was working in the rehabilitation unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, I overheard one doctor saying to another, 'If it weren't for these damn patients, it would be a terrific place to work here.' "

Her new play reflects her ongoing interest in the difficult path people in trouble need to travel to find their way back. Repressed memories, which have figured prominently, and controversially, in several high-profile criminal cases in the last few years, are also a dominant element in "Castaway.

Kellogg contends we are all familiar with the repressed memory phenomenon. "We forget out of convenience, we forget out of trauma--the inability to absorb what hurt us," she said. "We repress because we want to look better in our own eyes than we really are or we lose power because life has not gone as our fantasies dictated."

At the same time, Kellogg tries to avoid the trap of easy psychological cliches, like pinning responsibility on parents. "It's never just one thing," she said firmly. "So what I try to do in the play is put it within a context and to set up a lot of situations between the five actors. I don't write for a big canvas--every play I've written has been an ensemble piece. It's more interesting to me to be juggling 25 things at once," she said, her face lighting up with a broad smile. "Besides, it's more fun."


"Castaway," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Ends June 8. $19-$23. (805) 962-8606.

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