It is one thing to recognize the dramatic potential in a New York Times article about the disintegration of working-class communities and its devastating toll from one generation to the next, as playwright Carter W. Lewis did.
It is quite another thing to make the imaginative leap and turn that material into The Science of Leaving Omaha, about a teenage dropout working in a Nebraska crematorium and the stranger who breaks into her workplace one night.
Developed by Palm Beach Dramaworks during the otherwise dormant days of COVID, Lewis’s play now has its professional world premiere at the West Palm Beach stage company beginning tonight.
Directing will be Bruce Linser, head of the Dramaworkshop, the troupe’s new play development unit which shepherded the script through several drafts and a couple of Zoom virtual readings.
“We live in a society where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. As I said to the cast on the first day, this is about a generation that we’ve told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but we’ve given them a system that is so broken, they really have no way to actually do that,” says Linser. “That to me is the core of where this play sits. That there is an entire generation of kids that have been dismissed or discarded or forgotten, and they are the victims of a system that we created. The core of this play is about broken dreams and dashed hopes, and the fragile hope that we have the courage to somehow move forward.”
Patrons of the late, much-missed Florida Stage have seen several of Lewis’s plays, including Golf With Alan Shepard, Women Who Steal, The Storytelling Ability of a Boy and The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider. They know that he often tackles serious, topical subjects, but with an underlying sense of humor. Maneuvering that balancing act is the primary challenge facing Linser and his three-member cast.
“He has sort of a quirky way of writing that I really find appealing. It’s realism, but it’s not. There are heightened moments of kind of magical realism, things that step beyond just the standard realism,” Linser notes. “You don’t want it to be too quirky, too comedic. But you also don’t want it to be so dark that it becomes heavy. So the challenge is finding that nimbleness in his writing.”
Making her Dramaworks debut — as are the other cast members — is Georgi James, playing Iris, the girl who is stuck in her dead-end crematorium job.
“This play takes real people that are in situations that are really difficult. They face so much adversity in their lives. They’re trying to break the generational habits of poverty, lack of education, addiction,” she explains. “And through it all, Carter has created these characters that are so resilient and so hopeful and optimistic. A lot of people going through these situations would have given up, but Carter’s characters do not give up. They’re going to fight until the very end to try to make their lives better. Iris is a fighter and she’s going to fight hard. She believes that, although it seems unlikely, there’s a better life for her out there somewhere.”
Iris works the overnight “graveyard” shift, with specific instructions not to admit anyone to the crematorium. Nevertheless, in crashes Baker, an equally untethered local guy in his early 20s, insistent on seeing his recently deceased wife and giving her a fitting farewell. Playing Baker is Nicholas Tyler-Corbin, who grew up in small-town northern Florida, a background that helped him relate to his character. “I wouldn’t speak negatively of Omaha, but I can definitely see how young people could feel a little bit restless in that town and maybe want to get out,” he says.
“This play highlights a real battle in America. One out of every seven kids is going to grow up with a parent that faces drug addiction. Or the fact that suicide is at an all-time high rate since World War II, primarily by young kids. Why is that? It really comes down to the eradication of the working class and growing up in communities where most of the exits are from drug addiction, arrests or death,” says Tyler-Corbin. “For these characters, growing up in poor Omaha, Nebraska, means a life of mediocrity. Carter has been able to humanize these characters and not turn them into caricatures.”
Although the Dramaworks audience is typically much older and more urban than Iris and Baker, director Linser feels that they should be able to relate to these characters and their situation. “My hope is that our core audience will see their grandkids, their grandkids’ friends, the kid behind the counter at Starbucks, the kid who works at the gas station fixing cars,” suggests Linser. “This whole group of people that we largely ignore and know nothing about. I think it’s important that we see the world, not just from our place in it, but from other people’s place in it. Particularly these folks that have been forgotten.
“To see how the system is broken and how we can fix it for those who come after us.”
THE SCIENCE OF LEAVING OMAHA, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. From Friday, Feb. 3 to Sunday, Feb. 19. $84. 561-514-4042k ext. 2.