Home at Last

There are worse people to be at this moment than Julie Marie Myatt. The 39-year-old Los Angeles resident is as hot on the theatrical circuit as the chatter about Sanjaya's ponyhawk is on MySpace.

Her new play, My Wandering Boy, launches South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival, merely the West Coast's most prestigious gathering of theater scribes. Next month, another new play, Boats on a River, about the Cambodian sex-slave industry, opens at the eminently respected Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Next year, yet another new play, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, about a female Marine returning from a tour in Iraq, is part of the equally well-respected Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And, to top it all off, she currently has a 10-minute play in the 31st Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

“It never happens this way, by the way; it just doesn't,” says a rather shell-shocked but grateful Myatt in between bites of sushi during a lunch break from rehearsals of My Wandering Boy. “I've been doing this 20 years, and last year, I was really struggling about my future as a playwright and wondering if I could do it for another 20. And then I was fortunate and met some people. But it never works like this. You don't hand someone a play in November and then see it done in March. You just don't.”

Yet that's exactly what's happening with My Wandering Boy. A few months ago, Myatt was researching a play for the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater about adoptive parents and interviewed the company's co-founder, Bill Rauch, who is one such parent—as well as an SCR associate artist.

“I knew of Julie's work and loved her plays, but we had never met,” Rauch says. “But it just so happened that I had a couple of directing slots coming up, and I asked her if she had any new material.”

She happened to have two plays. Rauch devoured them and immediately began pushing to direct them at SCR and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which Rauch takes over next year as artistic director.

“It's been a really good year,” Myatt says. “And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bill. He came along at just the right moment.”

After two decades of moving, writing and working with similar itinerant theater types, Myatt's career at last seems permanently rooted. That's ironic, since one of the plays that has helped settle her professionally is My Wandering Boy, a piece about searching for a drifter who has simply disappeared.

The play tackles one of the most American of literary archetypes, the road trip, as well as a long revered American icons: the idealistic soul who, soured by materialism, takes to the open road to find the real America and, of course, himself.

But Myatt's play turns the road trip and its drifting character, Emmett, upside-down. The only sight of him is a glimpse of his feet from a video camera he used to document his journeys. Everything we learn about him comes via a private investigator—hired by Emmett's parents to find their missing son—who interviews friends and family, all of whom have different takes on Emmett. Where some see a spiritual, seeking soul, even a dharma bum, others just see a bum: a selfish, manipulative vagabond.

The truth of the character is as ambiguous as his actual fate in the play.

“I don't think anyone in the cast agrees with anyone else as to who Emmett is or what actually has happened to him,” says Rauch, who has directed three plays at SCR , including last year's extraordinary production of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.

Nor have they asked the playwright. “I think we all know that the beauty of this play is that it's up to everyone to decide for themselves what happens to Emmett, or to accept the fact they'll never know,” Rauch said.

It wouldn't do any good to ask Myatt, anyway.

“I really haven't decided one way or another,” she says, when questioned. “Like many of the characters in the play, I don't think I want to make that decision. I don't know what's worse: knowing what happens to someone who's missing, or not knowing. Either way, it's a big hole, and I'd like to keep the puzzle open.”

Emmett's literary antecedents are obvious: Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty; Larry Darrell in A Razor's Edge; nearly anyone from a Hermann Hesse novel. But the character that comes closest to him was the very real Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer's riveting biography, Into the Wild. (Sean Penn's film adaptation comes out later this year).

After graduating from the highly tony Emory College in 1990, McCandless spurned his middle-class upbringing, donated his life savings to charity and hit the road. He wound up in Alaska and, by overestimating himself and underestimating nature, met a dismal end.

The parallels between McCandless and My Wandering Boy's Emmett aren't coincidental, says Myatt. “A couple of years ago, I read that book and wondered if you could build a play based on the idea of the things that someone has left behind. Would that be interesting? Do objects hold the same resonance on a stage that they have in real life? From that I got the image of a pair of boots onstage and that's where the play's structure started taking form.”

The play's heart, however, came from Myatt's desire to explore a real American theme after spending two years researching the Cambodian sex-slave industry. “I've always been drawn to that iconic American who wants to travel across the country and find himself. In our culture, there are tons of these wandering guys. Clint Eastwood has played him how many times? John Wayne. Shane. They've been part of America forever.”

But while we mythologize the high-plains drifter and the air-conditioned gypsies in literature, film and song, when it comes to real-life Emmetts, relationships are far more complex.

Myatt admits to having dated a few Emmetts in her time, as well as having an ongoing love affair with road trips. “I think a lot of people can be very upset with characters like this. They don't understand people who seem to have everything and then blow it off. If you have a little wanderlust yourself, you do understand it. If you don't, it seems trivial or irresponsible. And a lot of people get genuinely angry or resentful: Why do they get to not have any responsibility?”

Ultimately, however, My Wandering Boy isn't about Emmett as much as people's memories of him, which adds an entirely different layer to what is, on the surface, a detective story about a missing person.

And it is precisely the multilayered aspect of the writing that hooked Rauch from the moment he began reading. “I think it's an astonishing play because it's so mysterious and elusive,” he says. “It's very subtle, and while there's great humor in it, there's also a huge streak of melancholy and longing. The emotional life of this play is palpable because it's really all about family and the complicated motivations behind why people do things and how they're never as straightforward or simple as they seem on the surface.”

My Wandering Boy at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Opens Fri. Tues., 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 N 7:30 p.m. Through May 6. $28-$60.

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