SAN DIEGO JEWISH JOURNAL
The San Diego premiere of “Extraordinary Chambers”
By PAT LAUNER
What do you get when you mix together one Jew, two half-Jews, one Muslim and three Asians? “Extraordinary Chambers.”
The play, which premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in 2011, won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Play and was hailed by the L.A. Examiner as “brilliantly written… keenly intelligent and delicately emotional.”
Playwright David Wiener was inspired by a family trip to Cambodia, and still steeped in the painful process he and his wife had gone through in trying to conceive a child.
“The foreign political backdrop allowed me to write about myself,” Wiener confesses. “But the real reason I wrote the play was the man I met on my trip who had first-hand experiences – as every Cambodian does – with the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge.”
More than two million people, a significant portion of the population, perished from 1975-1979, either by execution, disease or starvation .
“Everyone is just one degree removed from someone who was killed or someone who did the killing,” Wiener reports. “The malignant regime affected every aspect of society, including clothing worn – only black was acceptable; the elimination of music, holidays, birthdays, even the most basic familial bonds. Children were seen to belong to the State or the Revolution.
“I had a sense that I came a long way to visit, meet the people, sample the food, and I truly had no idea where I was or what had come before. I named my character after Sopoan , the wonderful Buddhist man who opened my eyes.”
About the time that Wiener was visiting, the trials were taking place, called The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The ongoing process has to be implemented with high-priced international cooperation — in a country where the average worker earns less than fifty cents a day — because the entire legal profession was eliminated: lawyers, judges, professors, doctors – all the intelligentsia were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. But an attempt is being made to bring to justice those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“It’s not as simple as it sounds,” says Wiener. “The questions are: Who’s responsible? Certainly the leader Pol Pot. But ordinary people were implicated, too, forced by the extremity of their conditions to do horrific things.”
One Genocide is Like Another
It all sounds very familiar to Jews: genocide based on the assumed superiority of one group and the attempt to “treat other people, perceived ‘outsiders,’ as though they’re no longer human,” as Wiener puts in. In his play, there’s mention of the Nazis, and an oblique reference to a doctor reminiscent of Josef Mengele, the monster of Auschwitz.
“Since I’m half-Jewish,” says Wiener, referring to his Jewish father and Catholic mother, “and I identify with my Jewish roots, I wanted to draw that parallel, invoke that echo.
“But my play is not about genocide. It’s not political. It’s not even really about Cambodia per se. It’s about Americans going to Cambodia, and how they interface with the world. How they are — or aren’t — changed by that experience.
“Ultimately, the play is about what people do when they’re pushed to a place of extremity. There’s this American couple in a troubled marriage, who are still reeling from the loss of a child. I wanted their loss to serve as a lens to look at the inconceivable; their major personal tragedy as a way of helping us relate to this incredible level of death and destruction.”
The husband, Carter, is in Cambodia to set up a contract for telecommunication centers. His depressed wife Mara reluctantly comes along. They are hosted by another couple, the dealmaker Dr. Heng , and his younger, enigmatic wife, Rom Chang. The doctor, and possibly his wife, appear to be deeply implicated in the Khmer Rouge exterminations. Running interference between the two couples is Sopoan , the guide and driver, who presents painful monologues about his torture and the loss of his wife during the massacres.
In the meantime, Rom Chang has arranged for Mara to meet a beautiful, green-eyed orphan boy. Mara desperately wants him; Carter, who has his own slippery morality, wants no part of Heng , his wife or the baby.
“The couples are, in some ways, mirror reflections of each other. Both are either trying to run away from their past, or replace it,” says director Seema Sueko, co-founder and executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, a small but potent local company that’s presenting the San Diego premiere of Wiener’s play.
“I’m drawn to the idea of exorcising the past,” says Sueko, who was born and raised Muslim in Hawaii (the name of her theater means ‘story’ in Hawaiian). “Certainly, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia are trying to exorcise the nation’s past. But all the characters are exorcising their own personal pasts.
“As I experience this play,” Sueko continues, “I’m constantly wondering what I would do if I were in their place. Would I survive a genocide ? How? I hope the audience wonders this, too.
“I’m also intrigued by the motivation of love. In the play, love motivates the characters to survive, to protect, to compromise, to become complicit. What are the boundaries of our love for another human being?”
“You can say ‘Never Again’ as much as you want,” says playwright Wiener, “but these horrific things just keep happening. This play invites people to examine the horrible things we do to each other – sometimes in the name of love.”
When Wiener, now 40, was in grad school, he wrote a play about his relationship to Judaism. It was called “Far de Toite ,” Yiddish for “For the Dead.”
“It was the first ‘grownup’ play I wrote, a kind of ‘Who Am I?’ work, with a lot of Yiddish thrown in. [He’d taken many Jewish-themed courses at Duke University, including Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah]. I always loved the Talmudic tradition of questioning — even if it’s the word of God. Interpretation matters. That means something to me.
“And I’ve always felt a connection to the people who brought my name across the ocean – from Russia and Poland. I was always fascinated by World War II. Some threads of my family died in the camps. So when I was creating the character of Mara, I wanted her to have to make a moral choice – and to make that as difficult as possible. So making her half-Jewish implicates her, makes her a little more responsible for her choice. As a Jew, she can’t claim not to know better.”
Casting the role of Mara was “extremely difficult” for award-winning director Sueko. “We needed to find an actor who can go from wearing her grief to displaying an aggressive enthusiasm when she finds the boy in the orphanage. We also wanted someone who has an ironic sense of humor. That was Ms. Erika Beth Phillips.”
From Amy to Erika
Phillips was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she lived until junior high school, when her Reform Jewish family moved northward to New Rochelle. Their new next-door neighbors were Carl and Elsie Samuelson, founder/owners of the famed Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, an upstate New York camp that embraced starry-eyed kids and spawned many bona fide stars.
“I had done some theater in school, but it wasn’t a passion for me,” says Phillips. “I went to their camp from age 12-15, not because I was some Broadway baby, but because they were our neighbors! While I was there, I performed in cabaret shows they toured all over the Catskills. Besides the biggies – the Nevele and Grossinger’s — I remember one very clearly, an orthodox hotel called Zucker’s La Vista. There were no men in the audience, because they couldn’t watch girls dance. All the women were in wigs; it was such another world to me. We had to re-choreograph the whole show, so the boys were never touching the girls.”
Most of her time at Stagedoor , she remembers being backgrounded : “the third girl on the left” in the big musicals. Still, it was “an incredible experience,” and she still maintains many of the friends and contacts made there. “My fire was lit there,” she says, and it has continued to burn for theater ever since.
Having two psychotherapist parents (her father is a psychiatrist; her mother, who died of cancer five years ago, was a psychologist) “made me thoughtful about behavior, and introspective,” she confesses. It also made her reluctant to discuss her dreams with them, once she entered puberty! But, she says, “I started thinking very young about people’s motivations, and that’s very helpful in acting.”
Her father’s parents, originally named Phillipovsky , immigrated from Poland and Latvia, via England. Her maternal grandparents were “secular, but culturally very Jewish.” Her indomitable 94 year-old Grandma Bea (Beatrice Shore, “creator of the ‘Wonder Woman’ bathing suit of the 1970s that put me through college”) lives with her and her husband in Escondido, adjacent to another house, inhabited by her father and brother, a Sanskrit scholar. When her mother got sick, the far-flung family reunited. And they all just stayed.
“I was a real scholarly kid,” Phillips reports of her educational years, “and was very disappointed that I didn’t get into Harvard, Yale or Brown. I chose Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, which had been my ‘safe’ school.’ It had everything I was looking for: a great theater department, a vibrant, diverse student body known for its eclectic, left-wing thinking.”
After graduation, she went off to England “as an adventure,” obtaining a 6-month work visa through BUNAC, the British University of North America Club. Working as an actor, she stayed for seven years. She met her English husband, James Pillar, on a three-month British tour of a children’s play (“he was a King, and I was a Queen who turned into a chicken”). When it came time to join the Actors Equity union, she changed her name from Amy to Erika, because there was already another Amy Phillips.
A stint in New York followed, with lots of new Off and Off Off Broadway work. Since she moved to San Diego in 2004, she’s performed at several theaters, and played the lead in the Lamb’s Players production of “South Pacific” (she’s an artistic associate with the company). She and her husband are teaching artists at the La Jolla Playhouse (James directs the summer conservatory there; Erika is also a teaching artist at The Old Globe).
This will be her third show with the award-winning Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, which was founded in 2004 and has been recognized by The American Theatre Wing with a 2011 National Theatre Grant; honored by the California State Assembly, the NAACP and the Anti-Discrimination Committee (Artistic and Cultural Achievement Award); was named the inaugural resident theater company at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2008; and has been acknowledged by the Broadway Green Alliance as an influential resource in the ‘Greening the theater industry’ movement. The company is dedicated to “uncovering stories within different communities… [ and ] recognizing the power of personal narrative to affect change in society.”
“I’m a big fan of Mo`olelo — and Seema,” Phillips says of the influential actor/writer/director/producer, named Consensus Organizer of the Year, who’s in the midst of a year-long Theatre Communications Group Leadership grant, serving in residence at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.
Erika and Mara and Judaism and “Extraordinary Chambers”
“When I first read the script,” Phillips says of “Extraordinary Chambers,” I fell in love with the play. I was incredibly moved. I felt connected instantly to the part and the character. I see Mara as a grieving, intellectual, artistic, frustrated woman in a marriage under stress.
“Although her individual circumstances are miles away from my own, I really tap into her situation and her acerbic wit. She’s wonderfully witty, smart, talented and French-speaking – it makes absolute sense that she’s Jewish! All her positive qualities are inherent in the Jewish culture. But I think the fact that she’s half-Jewish puts her in some way in a persecuted category.
“When I grew up in New York, I never felt like Jews were a minority. But it feels different in San Diego. I’d never hide being Jewish, but I don’t say it as casually as I did in New York. The first time I ever experienced any anti-Semitism was when I was 28, during a year of repertory at Stage One in Louisville, Kentucky. It was at a Wendy’s, where a guy who was trying to pick me up mentioned ‘Jews knowing how to handle money.’ I’ve experienced a little bit of that kind of thing in San Diego, too. When I was cast as a Jewish woman in “Brownie Points” at Lamb’s Players Theatre last year, a play about racism and anti-Semitism, I felt like I was ‘coming out.’
Her character’s only half-Jewish in “Extraordinary Chambers.”
“It’s one of those plays that asks provocative questions: What is the meaning of survival and how far does one go to survive? That’s certainly something Jews can relate to. On a more personal level, the play asks: How do you – and your marriage — survive the loss of a child? And also, most important: What is right and wrong, and is the difference always clear? What is moral and what’s not? What’s a ‘bad person’? Can that be circumstantial?”
Wiener built two big revelations into his play which, he’s proud to report, elicit gasps at every performance. He notes that, as he’s grown older and traveled more, and had a child (his son Leonard, named for his Jewish grandfather, is now 3), he’s changed his mind about the reason to write a play (after years in New York, he’s currently living in Los Angeles, a writer on the AMC-TV show, “The Killing”).
“There’s something about theater that makes it so personal,” says Wiener, “a live, communal experience that people share in a darkened room. I used to think that art came from a personal place, from unresolved issues. Now I believe theater’s real power is to engender empathy. And that’s my goal in ‘Extraordinary Chambers.’”
The Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company production of “EXTRAORDINARY CHAMBERS” runs June 6-30 at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown. There are free pre- or post-show talks on June 9, 20 and 27.
Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$40 . 619-342-7395 ; www.moolelo.net
©2013 PAT LAUNER