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THEATER

It Doesn't Hurt to Laugh

In her play about boomers and babies, Lisa Loomer finds humor in an often painful topic, one close to her heart.

July 30, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is The Times' art writer

What's funny about infertility? You could build a new Wailing Wall for couples who've exhausted their savings pursuing the latest in reproductive technology. Buckets of tears flow at support groups for frustrated aspiring parents.

For Lisa Loomer, even the most painful journey is better with a sense of humor. So she's written a play that mixes satire with sadness, wit with wisdom. "Expecting Isabel," which opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum, is the latest in this prolific playwright-screenwriter's ongoing exploration of the plight of her generation.

Consider this: "I've never had a favorite sport because I don't have . . . pep," Miranda, "Isabel's" central character, says at one point. "But I always liked sex because, for one thing, the other player is usually more complimentary than adversarial . . . and you get to lie down a lot . . . and there's minimal risk. Except for pregnancy, of course."

Loomer's voice has been honed by years of writing not only for the stage, but also for several sitcoms, including "Hearts Afire," a show produced in the early '90s by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and set in Washington. More recently, Loomer has focused on film work, with credits that include "Girl, Interrupted," for which she wrote the first draft, and "The Falconer," an upcoming project with Forest Whitaker for Fox.

As a playwright, Loomer is best known for "The Waiting Room," her critically acclaimed cross-cultural tale about women and medicine seen at the Taper in 1994. Her current saga of baby boomers who want babies is told through the eyes of Miranda and Nick, a 40-ish couple who are complacently happy until they start "trying." When they're unsuccessful using natural means, they enter a world of medicine they never expected to encounter and at the same time become recipients of a lot of well-meant advice about some pretty private stuff. The experience, written in a mix of direct-address monologues and flashback dramatic scenes, portrays a test of their marriage as well as of each one's sense of self-worth.

"Expecting Isabel," whose characters also include a doctor, relatives of both Miranda and Nick and potential birth mothers, is a story about options for bringing a child into a family, whether through pregnancy or adoption. It's also an investigation of what "family" means. By tapping into a culture in which challenge is the norm, Loomer explores spiritual and philosophical questions about procreation that otherwise could get left behind in the pleasures of sex, baby showers and setting up the crib.

*

Sitting at a table in the kitchen of her Pacific Palisades ranch-style house, Loomer is surrounded by evidence that a 2-year-old lives here, too. A coffee cup bearing a picture of the boy's smiling face, a panoply of toys neatly stacked in every corner indicate that issues of parenting are more than just academic for Loomer and her composer husband, Joe Romano, who wrote the music for "Isabel."

Loomer and Romano's son was born in 1998, just after the play was completed, and the couple is clearly close to the same age as her characters, though Loomer won't say exactly how close. But while the timing of her play might seem uncannily similar to the couple's personal history, Loomer is quick to point out that Miranda's story is not her own.

"People say, 'Are you one of the characters in this play?' I feel like I'm everyone in this play," she says. "I so understand everybody's position."

Loomer explains that she never experienced the surgeries, injections or even many of the choices that Miranda encounters, yet all of the internal questioning was very real to her as she wrote the play.

"I think the initial impulse came because I was thinking about having children," Loomer says. "At first I thought maybe I'll do a show called 'Why Bring a Child Into This Lousy World?' and look at why we even do it. With overpopulation, kids getting shot in high school, all of those questions. It's such a human and irrational impulse. And while you're thinking about it, instead of just going on impulse, as I might have at a different time in my life, a lot of those questions were very real for me."

Reluctant to talk about her own family out of concern both for their privacy and for the fact that the play might be misconstrued, Loomer reveals only after much conversation that her son was adopted. She also admits that her own happy experience in adopting influenced her writing of the play.

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