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An Important Door Opens

Well-known in the Beltway, playwright John Strand makes the leap West, with South Coast Rep's help.

April 29, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

Is there life beyond the Beltway for John Strand?

Hailed in Washington, D.C., as one of the capital's chief playwrights, he is having his first fully professional production on the West Coast at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The play, "Tom Walker," also is Strand's first at a major theater outside Washington.

"Tom Walker" is a comic expansion on "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving's fable about a miser in colonial Massachusetts who bargains for wealth with Lucifer and pays with his soul.

Irving's brief sketch is just a starting point for Strand's look at the American way of getting ahead through pluck, resilience and a willingness to make bargains. At its core are two underdogs--a black man with the limited options imposed on his race, and a village drunk who would rather play his fiddle than work.

The story, replete with surprising reversals and revelations, casts the sympathetic though morally dubious duo as proto-tycoons, early robber barons. Tom, the drunk, and Lucius emerge as J.R. Ewings in spirit, speaking in the "thees" of 1720s Boston rather than the "y'alls" of TV-era Dallas.

Strand's research included delving into 18th century diaries and journals so he could capture the nuances of colonial speech and daily life. Strand also wanted to give what he believes is a more realistic assessment of America's founding.

"I find those characters more real and colorful and intriguing than the sort of moralist Ben Franklin or the heroic nightrider Paul Revere," said Strand, who was raised in Maine and went to college in Boston. "What [the play's central characters] do is not clean and it's not moral, but it works in the practical sense. Now honestly, are there not many parallels in our own world? Living in the Washington area, I can tell you I see it up close. These sort of damaging compromises are an aspect of what the city runs on."

"Tom Walker" was full of fireworks--literally--when it premiered in February at Arena Stage in Washington. The devil shot fireballs and made scary entrances through a trapdoor; flames rained from the rafters, and billows of stage fog were deployed for spooky atmosphere.

That made sense in the 662-seat Arena; for South Coast's 161-seat second stage, Strand and Kyle Donnelly, who has directed four of his plays, including the Arena "Tom Walker," say they are going after intimacy and a focus on storytelling--sans pyrotechnics, which on California stages require special, and expensive, precautions.

"I wouldn't want one of my plays to result in the singeing of Costa Mesa," Strand said in a recent interview at South Coast.

At 49, he is a small man with a broad forehead, a receding hairline, a scholar's skinny round spectacles and a mild-mannered, smoothly articulate urbanity.

It's been 14 years since Strand, a late bloomer theatrically, began to write plays. He often does it in the middle of the night on his laptop at home in Adamstown, Md., on the D.C. outskirts. That's when he has time between caring for three young sons with his wife, Amanda, and working a day job as director of publications for the Washington-based American Assn. of Museums.

Strand's output has been prolific, his range fairly amazing. In addition to "Tom Walker," his plays include a parable about the callousness of the American medical system during the AIDS epidemic ('The Cockburn Rituals"); a farce about Oliver North's expedition to Iran to negotiate arms for hostages ('Three Nights in Tehran"); the true story of a Pygmy from the Belgian Congo who was caged in America and put on display ('Otabenga"); a loose adaptation of Molie're's "The Miser" set in the United States during the Reagan administration; and the period piece "Lovers and Executioners," a rhyming-verse expansion on a play by Molie're's 17th century French rival, Montfleury.

The Washington Post trumpeted "Lovers" as "funny, grim and pretty much superb" as well as "startlingly modern." As for the premiere of "Tom Walker," the Baltimore Sun's reviewer found it "thin and patchy . . . disappointingly slight," while the Post enthused that it was "smart and funny . . . finely crafted . . . [and] crowd-pleasing in the best way."

"Lovers and Executioners" is Strand's most widely traveled show to date, with about a dozen productions on campuses and at small theaters around the country since its 1998 premiere at Arena Stage. The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, a major regional company, has scheduled it for next season.

Strand has several more plays in progress. "Mongols" is about a 1970s pro-wrestling duo that always loses; "The Highest Yellow," a musical on which he is collaborating with "The Wild Party" and "Marie Christine" composer Michael John LaChiusa, focuses on the physician who treated Vincent van Gogh for his severed ear and had to decide whether to keep him institutionalized or declare him sane. "The Diaries" is based on the writings of a Nazi officer in occupied Paris.

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