He said words are a strategy, you got to aim them and pull the trigger.
It can get weird in a funeral home at night.
Iris is working on an essay and struggling with phone reception. The furnace clanks and growls. Suddenly it’s 2 a.m. and Baker is pounding at the door.
In “The Science of Leaving Omaha,” playwright Carter W. Lewis brings sly humor and deep sympathy to a story of young people, stalled lives and the desperation for escape. The play, commissioned by the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, will receive its world premiere Nov. 18-21 in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
“Iris does the night filing in a basement crematorium,” said Lewis, who retired from WashU last spring after more than two decades as senior playwright-in-residence. “Baker was going to raise alpacas in Albuquerque. He was leaving Omaha on his Ducati trail bike but stopped to rob a bar.
“Things went badly.”
A whole new can of chaos
Lewis, a two-time nominee for the American Theatre Critics Award, is author of more than 30 full-length plays that have collectively received more than 200 productions. Previous PAD commissions include “American Storm” (2002), “Kid Peculiar” (2004), “Evie’s Waltz” (2008), “Camden & Lilly” (2012) and “Thinking It” (2016).
Lewis began writing “Omaha” in 2019, but had been contemplating the play’s central theme for several years. “I wanted to write about working-class kids,” Lewis explained. “Government and corporate sectors have abandoned them. Amongst working-class adults, substance abuse, single parenting and deaths of despair are at their highest levels since World War II.
“So, if you are working-class kid, there’s a good chance that your family is broken, your education was limited, and opportunities for life-sustaining employment are just not there anymore,” Lewis added. “What options do they have now?”
The first draft came quickly, but production — originally intended for the 2020-21 season — was delayed by COVID-19. The extra year allowed Lewis to workshop the script with Palm Beach Dramaworks, a professional company that previously produced his play “With” (2019); and to present a local reading with longtime collaborator Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama.
“It kind of shows because, when we got into rehearsals, the rewrites weren’t nearly as heavy as usual,” Lewis quipped. “Usually, playwrights are scrambling.”
The story centers on Iris, a high school drop-out whose kindly boss, Mrs. B., has encouraged a return to her studies. Alone in the crematorium, Iris writes about the treacherous ice on Zorinsky Lake, where “maybe you survive while you’re drowning; that would pretty much be the same difference around here.”
When Baker arrives, the pair strike up a cautious, rueful dialogue. Iris describes the mechanics of cremation, and Baker talks about his wife and hopes for the future. But soon the conversational armistice begins to fray, as Lewis builds to an ending of almost operatic majesty.
“You write these characters for a period of time, and you kind of fall in love with them,” Lewis said. “And then you get to the terrible thing that you know is supposed to happen. And you know it’s going to end badly, so you try to find a way to make it beautiful.
“Even in all the darkness, you try to give a glimmer of hope.”
Cast and crew
“The Science of Leaving Omaha” is directed by Urice, who worked with Lewis on all five previous PAD commissions as well as several productions for The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
The cast of three features junior Melia Van Hecke as Iris, senior Nathaniel Holmes as Baker and first-year student Taylor Miller as Sally, the security guard who checks on Iris.
Costumes are by Sallie Durbin, with props by Emily Frei. Lighting is by Sean Savoie; sound is by Ben Lewis. The stage manager is Marisa Daddazio.
Performances of “The Science of Leaving Omaha” begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18, 19 and 20; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 20 and 21. American Sign Language interpretation will be available for the 8 p.m. performance Nov. 20.
All performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors, students and WashU faculty and staff, and free for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office. Read about campus COVID-19 policies here.
For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.