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'Song of Extinction'

E.M. Lewis is not in Monitor anymore, that's for sure. The award-winning, 38-year-old playwright grew up on a farm in Oregon but has lived in the Los Angeles megalopolis since earning a masters degree in writing at the University of Southern California about a decade ago.

The Ashland New Plays Festival will present Lewis's "Song of Extinction" as a reading, directed by Caroline Shaffer and featuring Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors. It's a return engagement, as the play was a winner in last year's ANPF's playwright competition with a slightly different cast. It was also a finalist for the 2008 Sundance Institute Theater Lab and has had readings in New York and Los Angeles.

"It's about a very musically gifted young man named Max," Lewis says in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Monica. "He's very troubled. He composes music, plays the viola, and his mom has cancer, and he's trying to deal with being 15 with his mom being terribly ill and his father not knowing how to deal with his wife's illness."

The reading is a fundraiser for the ANPF, which spokeswoman Elizabeth von Radics says is rebuilding with a new board of directors after its previous board canceled the 2009 festival. OSF actors in the cast are Liisa Ivary, Cristofer Jean, Blaine Johnston, Jeff King, Anil Margsahayam and Brad Whitmore.

"Song of Extinction" was cited as one of the best plays of 2009 by Playbill magazine. Lewis won the 2009 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Association for the play. She won the 2008 Primus Prize for an emerging woman theater artist for "Heads," a drama about the war in Iraq. She is a member of Moving Arts Theater Company, the Dramatists Guild, the International Centre for Women Playwrights and the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights.

At blogspot.com, she describes herself as, "Writer of plays. Drinker of gin. Owner of cat. Seeker of truth. (Okay, in moderation.)"

Lewis says she finds father-son relationships rich in raw material for drama. In "Song of Extinction," Max gets little help from his father but something important from another man, his biology teacher (Cristofer Jean), who is a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields.

"There's lots of love and not a lot of ability to express it," Lewis says of the play. "They have a rough journey."

Lewis has also turned to her rural background for dramatic fodder. She grew up outside Monitor, near Woodburn, on her great-grandparents' farm. That milieu surfaced in "Infinite Black Suitcase," her first full-length play. The drama follows 16 people in rural Oregon struggling with loss and mortality in the space of a single day. She calls it an "Our Town-Oregon" play, referring to Thornton Wilder's play set in fictional Grover's Corners a century ago.

Lewis was the daughter of two schoolteachers. Growing up, she was always writing.

"Angsty teen-ge poetry or something," she says.

It wasn't until she earned a master's degree in professional writing at USC in 1998 and was almost 30 that decided on becoming a playwright and not a novelist or something else. She took one class in playwrighting.

"Writing plays fires all my synapses," she says. "I love the people I've connected with. Actors, a good director. I am in it because I love it."

She's lucky enough to have a day job — she works at USC's Student Information Systems — that's supportive. She saves vacation time for times when she has a play being produced, so that she can travel to work with actors and directors.

She says there's an immediacy in live theater you don't have anywhere else, a sense of being in the present. Sometimes she'll go to a production of one of her plays and sit in the back where she can take in the play and the audience's reaction simultaneously.

"The best plays have you at the edge of your seat," she says. "You don't know how it's going to turn out. But if they don't react, you've done something wrong."

She must be doing something right. In addition to having plays in readings and productions seemingly all over the country, she's had one play, "Heads," singled out for praise by Edward Albee.

"It's been remarkable," she says. "Especially the last year or two."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble@mailtribune.com or 776-4478

Caroline Shaffer of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will direct ANPF's reading of 'Song of Extinction.' - Photo by Jenny Graham