Pall in the Family

During the 1996 presidential campaign, the absence of real issues put family values on the evening news. The Soviet Union was well over. The economy was spinning. Clinton had one-upped Republicans and smashed welfare altogether. All that remained was to yack about what makes a great dad. As goes the nation, so goes theater, where the "absence of other galvanizing issues in the country at large is forcing playwrights to turn inward and get angry about their families and what makes them not tick," says South Coast Repertory Theatre literary manager John Glore. In some ways, then, it's back to the future. Family has been an obsession of playwrights since Oedipus first nailed his mother and Antigone braved death in order to bury her brother. But the past few years have seen a dramatic escalation in plays exploring the family. And no major theater has capitalized on (or benefited more from) that more than SCR, which begins its 35th season as a professional theater this month. Including this season's announced plays, 15 out of the past 49 works produced at SCR explicitly deal with what makes families work. Only two of those plays-Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and the current production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!-were more than 3 years old when produced at SCR.Now, if SCR's families were the ones we grew up watching on television-the Cleavers, the Cosbys, the Keatons-these plays would be maddeningly dull. Instead, the families are more like the Bundys; consider the wildly turbulent, comically exaggerated clans in Nicky Silver's Raised in Captivity or Amy Freed's Freedomland. Or they're like the Clintons, very real families suffering from such very real, very traditional challenges as adultery (Peter Hedges' Good As New) and bitter child-parent relationships (Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain). It's not a consciously articulated theme on the part of SCR's leaders, says Glore. But the presentation of so many plays about families isn't coincidental. When it comes to producing new work by emerging playwrights, SCR is one of the top theaters in the country. And most plays about families in SCR's recent history have been written by playwrights in their 30s, a generation in many ways obsessed with the issue of belonging."If you grew up in the '50s, you shared a lot of the same experiences," says SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch, who has been with the company since its humble beginnings in a tiny Costa Mesa storefront. "We all did kind of the same thing, and there were all these institutions in place that made you part of the society, from the military service to the church. None of that exists anymore. I look at kids these days, and there's no real connection to the society at large. So if you grow up absent of all those things, then family is all you have." But with the traditional notion of the family seemingly disintegrating in modern America, there isn't much there to sustain many of us.So maybe the answer is to blow that traditional notion of the family out of the collective consciousness. That's one of the themes of Jon Klein's Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, which opens Friday. It's a very funny, smart, biting look at the conflict between two warring value systems. One character sums up the country-and perhaps the play-like this: "Baby boomers desperately trying to maintain their own nostalgia for the post-war era. And that of their children, who can't imagine a life without personal stress and economic uncertainty. No wonder Kurt Cobain proclaimed Mayberry R.F.D. his favorite TV show."In Klein's play, dad Josh is a documentary filmmaker obsessively working on a film about the obsolescence of the American nuclear family while his family crumbles around him. Mom Marlys is a human-resources officer racked by guilt over all of the people she's laying off; meanwhile, she hallucinates that her own family is firing her. Daughter Christine is a typical 13-year-old delinquent in waiting: angry, depressed, shopping-oriented and the author of an English paper in which she enacts a long sequence of grisly tortures on her classmates with the assistance of Jesus, who grabs one kid's head and forces his mouth open so Christine can pour worms, slugs, black widows and centipedes down his throat. The family's inability to deal with its fragmentation results in a series of hallucinations, their fears and desires absurdly springing to life onstage-often in midconversation. At the breakfast table, Marlys is suddenly reduced to a life-size pat of butter, slowly dissolving in her chair as her husband and child discuss her; when Christine talks to her school therapist about problems at home, he suddenly grabs an electric power drill and begins demonstrating her upcoming lobotomy. Klein, 44, has written 20 plays. This-his first dealing explicitly with the family-was sparked by Dan Quayle's desperate gamble to make himself appear relevant by raising the family-values banner. "Quayle brought it up, and then Clinton and Dole jumped on it, and I just kept looking at these guys and wondering, 'Who are these people to judge what makes a good or bad family?'" Klein says. The thing that troubles Klein most in the furor over the family is the anachronism. "I don't think we need to protect the notion of the American family. I think we need to rethink our definition of what the American family is and how it works," Klein says. "I think it's one of the things that we're way behind of in terms of social development. There are a lot of different kinds of families out there. Different families have different needs and different sets of circumstances-from sexual orientation and where you live to your religion."I didn't come up with solutions," he adds. "What I'm doing mostly is raising questions that may debunk traditional notions. Maybe the one way the family will persevere is if we stop treating it with kid gloves." As an example, Klein raises the contemporary debate of keeping children protected from the Internet and other media. "There's a notion out there that children are growing up too quickly, and therefore, we should keep them from reality as much as possible," he says. "That's a misguided notion in a world where information is immediate and you're getting constantly barraged from the media. Kids today are wiser than ever. They can accept and digest information far more readily than their parents, and they're pretty good at discerning what is real and what is fake. "Obviously, there are some things we need to keep our kids from," he adds. "But I think, generally, this fear that children are at great peril reflects more the parents' fear than their children's."Dimly Perceived Threats to the System at South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 25. $26-$43; pay-what-you-will matinee, Sat., 2:30 p.m.

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