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Far from haven

A sense of security -- and the sad lack of it, personally and societally -- has been a recurring theme in the work of playwright Tom Donaghy.

August 10, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla — The phrase "homeland security" had not been coined when New Yorker Tom Donaghy finished his first draft of a play about an anxious Manhattan mom's desperate need to flee and create a secure home in the suburbs.

His inspiration, during that summer of 2001, was not the vision of towers collapsing in dust and smoke but his memory of a quiet visit to a friend's country home. She was remodeling, and Donaghy, acclaimed for his ability to find poetry in dialogue that resembles the fractured, disjointed way most people really talk, was eavesdropping.

What stayed with him was how the friend and her contractor went 'round and 'round over whether the changes she coveted would work.

That episode gave rise to "Eden Lane," whose protagonist, May, is a middle-aged former actress emerging from a "marital bloodbath." She is trying to rebound in a new place with a new husband -- though she can't stifle doubts that he'll prove no more solid than the drunken, womanizing ex who put her through hell. They have landed, with May's 22-year-old daughter, in a quiet, unnamed burg where the neighbors hold quaint block parties to raise money for the community chest.

"We will not elect to bring any more pain into a house we built with hope that our pain has finally left," May says. "The ones we elected to love who disappointed again and again are gone ... and the places that we've lived that are no longer safe are -- elsewhere. And we build a refuge. And it's sturdy." But not sturdy enough, her oddly intense interior designer is telling her, for the house's frame to support the big picture window May wants installed so she can awaken each day to a vista of her calm surroundings.

When Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, took Donaghy's script home one evening early this year, the then-untitled play hit him as a subtle distillation of much that had happened to the American psyche, post-Sept. 11. He didn't know much about Donaghy, who, after 10 years of productions at major nonprofit theaters on both coasts, remains more of a contender than an eminence. But he knew he wanted to direct his play.

"It's not topical, but I think the things that are going on in this family pertain to these troubled times," McAnuff says. "They're people looking for refuge and perhaps redemption. Many writers have tried to come to terms with this brave new world, and the thing I love about Tom's work is that he strikes a glancing blow to these subjects and doesn't hit anything directly on the head. Relationships and people are still the focus of the play."

Donaghy (the g is hard, as in McGhee) says the theme of people seeking a haven has resonated with him since his childhood outside Philadelphia, where he was reared by "good and careful people" -- an Irish American roofer and his Italian American wife -- who wanted to create a safe place for their four boys, of whom he is the eldest.

He left to study acting at New York University -- he'd told his family he was gay by then -- and stepped into a crash course in the nature of danger and insecurity. The AIDS epidemic hit while he was an undergraduate. "When there's a virus killing people that's affecting your life directly, that's a basis for paranoia," the trim, soft-spoken writer says.

Sept. 11 brought all Americans into a circle of vulnerability. But "Eden Lane," Donaghy says, is informed by his sense that, even apart from specters such as AIDS and terrorism, we must live with the fundamental precariousness of things.

"Even in the most mundane moments of daily life there is a kind of danger to living -- the danger of being engaged with the world and with people we love. I've always thought about that, and it's become more crucial in the last couple of years."

In "The Dadshuttle" (1993) and "Minutes From the Blue Route" (1997), Donaghy confronted some of his deepest fears by making his young alter-egos HIV-positive, although he is not actually infected (neither play is a topical work about AIDS, their focus falling instead on a persistent Donaghy theme: how families go through the gymnastics of conversational indirection to avoid hitting the nail on the head).

After Sept. 11, Donaghy says, he struggled with whether to mention the attacks in "Eden Lane." A long time went by before he added a reference. May's daughter, Ruby, tells a neighbor the litany of reasons they fled Manhattan: " ....And then 9/11 happened, and Mom kind of freaked out. We lived downtown. It wasn't good. She wanted peace and quiet ....So we bought, um, peace and quiet. Which is about two acres."

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