New Patagonia
Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center at Second St and Mercer, 443-2222. Tues-Sun at 7:30, Sat-Sun at 2; previews Nov 13-19, opens Nov 20; $29-$42 ($10 for anyone 25 or under). Through Dec 23.

FOR THE FIRST time in living memory, the Seattle Repertory Theatre--one of the leading regional theaters in the country and the theater with the biggest budget in town--is about to produce a new play by a local writer without a national reputation (i.e., who isn't August Wilson or Steven Dietz). To make this even more significant, the new play is good! It's Elizabeth Heffron's New Patagonia, about a psychedelic-era literary lion named Karl Kroeger (something of a Ken Kesey type) who's about to die and wants to go out with a bang. He decides to mount a three-day festival called the Orgasmic Mass of the Belated Undead (hearkening back to his glory days when he staged similar events such as the Divine Mass of the Infinite Asshole), and he invites his estranged son Jesse--who's now an assistant director in Hollywood--to film the spectacle. But when Jesse arrives, he has some surprises of his own.

Heffron began the play in 1994; the script has had a long, wending journey through readings and workshops to arrive on the Rep's stage. "What changed the script most was that initially, Karl had invited his son to film his death, and in 1994 that was macabre enough," said Heffron in an interview. "Then, at the end of 1996 or so, Timothy Leary videotaped his death and broadcast it live over the Internet. The play wasn't even finished, so it was like, Shit, what do I do now? So I thought, What would Karl do? He'd be really pissed off. He'd want to one-up the guy. During a workshop, Kurt [Beattie, literary manager of the Rep] said, 'Just blow it up! Just go crazy!' and I did. I didn't get any sleep, the thing became three hours long, and there was all this stuff in it. Then afterwards, I met with Sharon [Ott] and Kurt and they said, 'Uh, it's way too big.' But they were right--it needed to go back to the stuff between Jesse and Karl. It's a touchy balance, this tiny little story versus this huge big thing. The story can just get swallowed up."

Heffron's writing career has ranged from small, intimate projects to increasingly sprawling epics. Her beautiful monologue Moses Lake, about a woman losing her twin sister to cancer, premiered in New City Theater's Billy festival in 1995 and went on to acclaim in San Francisco's Solo Mio festival. An Altered Life--a three-hour play for 22 performers about a middle- aged woman who, upon discovering that her deceased doctor husband had been molesting his patients, completely changes the direction of her life--was workshopped at Freehold in 1998. And just this year Heffron wrote a massive historical pageant for the town of Leavenworth, with 270 performers and music by Norman Durkee, which began with the region's Native American myth of the beginning of time and went up through the town's cataclysmic fire in 1994, and featured (among other things) the county's current sheriff entering on horseback as a 1920s law officer, while a chorus sang, "Yup, we call him Dude Brown/and all outlaws he'll lick/'cause he's whupped his weight in wildcats and he's conquered Kickin' Dick." ("Which was a bronco bull Brown had ridden on a bet," Heffron helpfully explains.)

New Patagonia sprang not from a desire to top her previous work, but from Heffron's childhood. "I remember getting off of an airplane, winding up on Broadway in San Francisco, and seeing this woman in a purple bikini with fringe on it dancing two flights up in a glass box out over the street," said Heffron. "It was 1967; I was nine or 10 years old. My dad was a documentary filmmaker who made one of the early rock documentaries, about [famed promoter] Bill Graham closing down the Fillmore." Heffron reflects for a moment about her counterculture childhood. "It's a scary thing to watch adults run around crazy and act like kids. It's scary." The subject matter of New Patagonia could easily be a hippie reverie or baby-boomer nostalgia fest; it's Heffron's perspective--her awareness of the personal cost of the 1960s' quest for personal freedom--that gives the play its genuine edge.