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It's probably safe to say that the unplanned gathering of the Underfinger clan in the upstate New York home of the patriarch does not represent your typical family reunion.
Sure, other reunions might have their strained moments — manifestations of unresolved conflict or stale resentments. But the Underfingers? They're not only a dysfunctional family, they're dysfunctional individuals, trying to make sense of the past they shared and struggling to figure out how to go forward.
The Underfingers are the creation of San Francisco playwright Amy Freed, who brings them to life in her 1997 dark comedy, "Freedomland," which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
This weekend, the play opens in preview in an outdoor production by Theatre in the Woods, a small, bold company that has staged works by Sartre, Stoppard, Mamet and others in a forested area off Bear Gulch Road in Woodside since 2002.
"Freedomland," which runs weekends from July 26 through Aug. 31, is directed by Karen Offereins, who co-founded the theater company with fellow acting students Brian Markley, Gina Baleria, Reagan Richey and Dr. Victor Carrion.
Ms. Offereins had seen a few of the play's scenes performed during an American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) training program, "and I found it so witty and so poignant ... I decided that at some point I'd like to bring it to the stage," she said while winding down after a recent afternoon rehearsal.
Although she directed a one-act play for Theatre in the Woods several years ago, this will be the first full-length play she has directed.
The Underfinger family comprises patriarch Noah, his wife Claude, and his three adult children, Sig, Polly and Seth. The siblings are still trying to come to terms with an early family life in which they were abandoned by their mother and raised during a period of radical cultural change — the 1960s and '70s — by their intellectual, emotionally detached father.
Ms. Offereins said she sees the play as a family drama, but one with "so many comedic elements that it becomes a dark comedy in the end."
The siblings' struggle "to find meaning and define themselves after living so much of their lives feeling unwanted and unimportant is very compelling to me," she wrote in an e-mail.
Ms. Freed, who is artist in residence at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview that her play uses "the troubles of the American family as a sort of crucible for ideas," including the search for meaning and morality in the times in which we live.
A key device in exploring this is the pitting of the father, now a retired professor of religion, against his son, a survivalist with a penchant for violence. The son, "in his heart of heart, is yearning for absoluteness," she said.
"He's in need of an almost primitive order, of a (clear determination) of right and wrong." And conflict flares between the two as the son reacts "against the father's intellectual language, against his relativism," she added.
The playwright's voice
"Freedomland" was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California, where it premiered. Ms. Freed has had a long association with the company, and has been focused lately on the premiere there of her latest work, "You, Nero," also a comedy.
"You, Nero," also commissioned by South Coast, is being co-produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which will close its 2008-09 season with the play. Ms. Freed describes the new work as "'Spamalot' with togas."
Ms. Offereins said she was particularly happy to be directing Theatre in the Woods' first play by a female playwright, and it seems fitting that Ms. Freed is the featured artist.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in acting from Southern Methodist University, Ms. Freed came to San Francisco in the mid-1980s and enrolled in the ACT master of fine arts program. She studied with the company's legendary founder and artistic director, William Ball, and looked for work as an actress while also working as a waitress.
"The transformation into a playwright was not something I saw coming," she said, explaining that she wrote her first play, "Still Warm," because an option for her to complete the ACT master's program was to write a performance piece.
The play was based on the life of broadcast journalist Jessica Savitch, who had died several years before in a car accident. "I was fascinated by her struggle, her life as a mold-breaker — the tragedy of her trajectory and her downfall," Ms. Freed said.
The hungry young actress found a measure of common ground with the attractive Ms. Savitch, who along with other women in her field was judged by her looks and demeanor on camera. "Objectification issues were big for me, too," Ms. Freed said.
Although she's now critical of her first play, she said that writing it was a turning point for her. "When I started writing, the profession woke up to me," she said.
"Suddenly, I understood what it was all for. ACT showed me a form of [what theater was capable of. Writing seems like the way to serve that ... it's a pathway to my own aesthetic in theater, because [for actresses what's out there isn't that compelling."
Since "Still Warm," Ms. Freed has written a number of plays, all of which have been produced, she said. Those include "The Beard of Avon," which was staged by ACT, and "Restoration Comedy."
Although her works are comedies, Ms. Freed said she has "never written a play without a point." In "Freedomland," she examines "a culture that is stuffed to the gills with choices and options for ways to live," and a pervasive relativism that raises spiritual, moral and ethical issues.
"There's serious reflection at the end about where all the searching and relativism ... will lead to."
"Freedomland" by Amy Freed will preview on July 26 and Aug. 2. It opens on Aug. 3, and runs Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 31, outdoors in the woods at 2170 Bear Gulch Road in Woodside.
Play-goers may picnic on the grounds beginning at noon; the play begins at 1 p.m. Some hiking to different stages is involved. The play is not suitable for children, and parents are encouraged to use discretion in deciding whether to invite their teens along.
Tickets are $10, previews; $20, general; $15, students, seniors and members. For reservations: call 415-668-2879; e-mail email@example.com; or visit atmostheatre.com.