See those people over there in the shiny sunglasses? They're aliens.
At least that's what they are in Constance Congdon's untraditional comedy, "Tales of the Lost Formicans," which will open Sunday at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. "The world is changing at an incredible rate," said the playwright. The present and the future butt heads (actors play the humans and their alien counterparts) to illustrate Congdon's feelings "about my life and the world we live in. I look back at my childhood as if it were another planet."
Feeling caught up in a fast-forward society was just one of the Colorado-born, Massachusetts-based writer's motivations.
"You know how you go through something horrible or wonderful and try to explain it to someone and it just lies there like a latke, and you say, 'Well, I guess you had to be there,' " she said, recalling her father's battle with Alzheimer's. "When I tried writing about it in a direct, in-the-moment way, it just seemed sort of banal--like another illness story, or another someone-leaving-home story, or another fight-with-your-mother story. And it's more important than that."
Congdon, 44, had some other memories that needed venting.
"One of the many stupid jobs I had--before I decided to become an artist and not make any money at all--was working in a library before I went to grad school. The job was meant for wives whose kids were at school or grown; it was really a second-income salary. But there were a lot of divorced women who were supporting children on it. Minimum wage was maybe $6,000 a year then. Now it's around $8,000. That's real basic."
She frowned. "What I wrote about was the anger they didn't express. For the most part, their (ex's) economic level rose tremendously after the divorce. The women I knew hadn't gotten the great legal settlements we're always hearing about. Sometimes they'd go two or three months without a (child-support) check. They were living in these tiny apartments, barely getting by. I thought, 'Nobody is writing about this. These women are invisible. They're supposed to be in the middle-class--but of course, they're not.' "
Another ingredient was her then-16-year-old son. "I was having a lot of trouble with him," she said. "He's fine now. But at the time, he was very angry. He was other things than angry, but the anger was what stayed with me. I had so much anxiety, feelings of loss of control, there was no way to keep it out of the play. Then there was this other part of society: a whole sea of teen-agers out there--kids who'd been kicked out of the house." Without her sanction, but at her son's invitation, some of these kids slept in her garage.
Once Congdon began personalizing the story, the piece clicked.
"I'm not divorced, but I thought, 'What would it be like to not have a husband? What would I do?' If--when I'd had that horrible library job--my husband and I had broken up, that would've been the best job I could get. I'd be one of those women." She sighed. "All the cliches from the '60s aren't going to help us. The stupidity of the Reagan years isn't going to help us. There are a lot of people out there holding on on a day-by-day basis. Some of the problems are economic, but a lot of them aren't: not knowing what to hang on to, what to teach your child, always feeling like you're on a fault line."
If Congdon is taking on a lot of issues in a limited forum, she makes no apologies. "I think modern audiences need more stimulation," she said firmly. "I frequently feel like the audience is ahead of a lot of plays, then they relax back into their soap-opera modes because they know where it's all going. This play has a lot of short scenes like little film clips--flashes, the way we really remember reality--but it's not hard to follow. All you need is a sense of humor."
Congdon's seems to have served her well. In addition to the library job, she has weathered stints as a carhop, kitchen worker, grocery clerk, music-store saleswoman and leather-goods maker. There was also a lot of teaching--mainly composition and remedial English. "Now, remedial English is called Fundamentals of Writing," she said with a grin. "Freshmen skill levels were so bad they actually had to create lower-than-bonehead English. But I really had a sense of mission when I taught. I got out when I lost my passion for it."
Before the success of "Formicans" (it has been staged at the Sundance Institute, Humana Festival and Eureka Theatre--and two additional productions are slated), Congdon put in three years as literary manager at the Hartford Stage. In between, she also racked up "13 or 14" plays, including four children's works. "I love the act of writing," she said. "If I weren't a playwright, I'd write other things. I love doing this for a living. I love to be at the word processor."
It doesn't mean the writing isn't without some self-revelatory pain.
"I think I ended up saying in this play that I have some regrets, a feeling that I've lost my humanity," she said soberly. "Like the way I can detach myself from my emotions, get through the 6 o'clock news without a double-Scotch or wanting to kill myself. I've come up with insulating ways to get through the day; we all have. I think we're definitely evolving, and protecting ourselves is part of the evolution. That's fine. It's necessary. But I don't know what it's all eventually going to mean."