E.M. Lewis‘s play Song of Extinction opens with a guy messing with a slide projector, and a teenager playing a violin. Then the action moves to a classroom where biology teacher Khim Phan (Arun Kumar) opens his hands. “Extinction is a very messy business,” he tells the audience. And then to a hospital bed where a patient prepares to die. The play is now onstage at Twilight Theater Company.
The projector guy is Ellery Forrestal (Thomas Magee); the teenager is his son Max (Ben Delgado). While Max’s mother, Ellery’s wife Lily (Shelley Aisner) is in the last stages of cancer at a nearby hospital, Ellery worries about a rare beetle facing extinction in Bolivia. Max is coming apart. There are two types of extinction going on here: global extinction, as symbolized by said beetle, and the extinction of a family member, no symbolism needed.
Max wants to spend time with his mother, and he is flunking biology. Ellery is oblivious to his wife’s suffering and Max’s distress. He is meeting with Gill (Stan Yeend), the developer who could make the beetle extinct. Lily’s oncologist, Joshua (Ethan Sloan), tells her that time is running out. Phan realizes something is terribly wrong with Max, and decides to dig a little deeper. If Max doesn’t deliver a 20-page paper on extinction by next Tuesday, he will fail the class. Phan is right, there are no clean lines in this extinction business. His involvment with Max and his family brings up haunting memories of his own extinction story, when his family attempted to flee the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during his childhood.
Lewis’s play is about grief, loss, and personal and global trauma. While written in 2010, it could easily belong to the post-pandemic canon as it speaks so eloquently to our collective mourning. The local playwright is best known in Portland for her plays Magellanica and The Gun Show.
Directed by Michael Griggs and Kathleen Worley, it is well-perfomed and spare, and delivers its message well. The creative team includes Derek Lane, set design; Robin Pair, light design; Ilana Watson, sound design; and Mikaela Gladstone, costume design.
Song of Extinction continues its run through July 31 at Twilight Theater Company, 7515 N. Brandon Ave., Portland, 97217. Tickets are available here.