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UC Irvine's Prescient Playwright

The play, written last year, asks whether Americans can still cope with catastrophe.

September 24, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Takacs was staying at his parents' house in La Habra, delivering pizzas by night and spending days at an old Royal electric typewriter, trying to capture on paper what it would be like if everything changed for his generation in an instant.

What if young people who had grown up in the best of times were suddenly thrust into the worst of times? Would they meet the challenge? Or would their virtues prove brittle, their principles fragile, their hearts easily embittered, their susceptibility to expediency extreme?

The answers the UC Irvine graduate student came up with unfolded on a campus stage last week. His play, "Kaintuck," was a work of cautionary, speculative fiction when he wrote it in the placid summer of 2000. He never imagined it would arrive before audiences after a week that shattered the national idyll his play was meant to disturb. The questions "Kaintuck" asks about Americans' resiliency and moral fiber no longer are hypothetical.

The play takes place at the dawn of a second Great Depression. Carter and Sara, a young, very in-love couple, are jobless and living on their last $1,900 in a low-rent motel in Oak Park, Ill. But Carter is exhilarated. "It's a level playing field now. Every little breath is essential now. ... It's energy, it's drive ... and it's very alive." With their youth and "strong hands and wills," he vows, they will overcome adversity and forge their own destiny. As it turns out, this is sheer romanticism; a more troubling reality awaits.

Takacs, 24, says he wrote the play because he felt America had become a nation puffed with illusions of invulnerability and unstoppable economic progress. He can't help but be aware that, suddenly, his themes hit home like an awakening slap.

"How horrible to celebrate misfortune because it makes your work timely," said Takacs (pronounced "tackus"), a master's degree candidate studying acting, not playwriting, at UCI. He would rather that the questions in the play had not become so urgent and immediate. "But if they're being asked, and ['Kaintuck'] can put some perspective on it and lead to reflection, then maybe it's serving some purpose."

The play also raises a question that has long been asked within UCI's drama department. The graduate drama school tied for 12th nationally in a 1997 U.S. News & World Report ranking based on a survey of deans and top faculty from drama schools around the country. (Yale came in first in the survey, the most recent the magazine has conducted for graduate arts programs; UC San Diego was third and CalArts eighth.) But unlike many of its competitors, including Yale, UC San Diego and CalArts, UCI does not offer a master's program in playwriting.

"That's our great lack right now," says Keith Fowler, who heads the directing program at UCI. The workshop production of "Kaintuck" is a rarity, says Fowler, who is directing Takacs' play and has cast it with graduate students and alumni. In his 21 years on the faculty, Fowler said, "I can probably count on one hand" the number of plays by UCI students that have received full productions. He thinks the school should move ahead with a playwriting program and hopes the staging of "Kaintuck" can "contribute to the discussion" about playwriting.

Cameron Harvey, the drama chairman, says that adding a playwriting degree offering is "on the list" behind other priorities, such as restoring programs in acting, directing and design to full strength after cutbacks in the early 1990s. If UCI were to enroll playwriting students, Harvey said, it would have a domino effect on the department's productions. A key concern is that the drama department would have to cut back on presenting classics and challenging repertory works to stage unknown plays by unknown student writers.

Harvey says that there currently are ways for worthy student scripts to be produced, or at least given workshop stagings less prominent than the one "Kaintuck" is having. Takacs' play commands a showcase slot as the drama school production for Arts Welcome Week, when students convene after summer break.

It happened by accident. Takacs has written as well as acted for as long as he can remember, including his childhood and his days at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, through his undergraduate career as a sociology major at Wheaton College in Illinois. But he had shown his work only to close friends. Last spring, a visiting theater professional, Jim Sullivan, was giving a master class in directing. Sullivan called for new scripts to show the students how to approach original material. Takacs had volunteered to assist as an actor, but he also stuffed "Kaintuck" into his backpack for the first class. Fowler had told him not to bother--that the master class would use material from an undergraduate playwriting course. But Takacs gave Sullivan the script, and the guest teacher asked Fowler to read it too.

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