The company name – LAB Theater Project – is your giveaway to what it’s all about. Tucked inside an otherwise nondescript Ybor City strip mall, LAB is the only professional theater in the bay area doing only previously-unproduced works. It is – that’s right – a laboratory.
Founder and artistic director Owen Roberston understands that getting audiences to know and accept this requires a learning curve. “There’s a giant risk in it,” says the longtime member of the local theater community. “People don’t know the playwrights, they don’t know the plays … who’s this theater company and why do they only do new works?
“Some of it requires the time to educate your audience and make them understand that without places like LAB, without doing this kind of work, we don’t get Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman or Caryl Churchill … these new playwrights who become icons in our industry without somebody willing to take the chance on them. And develop their new work.”
Making its debut Thursday is Drift, by Massachusetts playwright Patrick Gabridge. It’s the very first full production of the poetic drama about two farming families adversely affected – in different ways – by tragedy.
Molly Benza’s wife, Jane, recently died from exposure to a weed-destroying chemical applied by her neighbor, John Davidson, to his own crops. The toxic spray, which Davidson dramatically over-applied, “drifted” across to the Benza’s strictly organic vegetable farm.
Farmer Davidson died, too. His widow is Nora; she’s wracked with guilt, and she doesn’t understand Molly, or her life choices. Including the fact that she’s raising two mixed-race children (Callie and Jamal).
There’s conflict, and confusion in the pages of Drift. And, inevitably, confrontation.
“One of the things that attracted us to this show was the inter-connection between this sense of growth, and the growth cycle, and the life cycle,” Robertson reports. “The seasonality of it. This notion of winter leading to spring – from darkness and gloom to new beginnings. It’s about rebirth.”
There are numerous allegorical references to life, and love, and what’s necessary to make things sprout and grow. “We’re living in a world where we find ourselves with competing ideals,” says Robertson. “Patrick takes this play and puts them in a farming context. Competing ways of life, in terms of the LGBTQ against standard, traditional life; competition between standard farming practices and organic farming practices; and family structure and dynamic.
“And these competing views: How do we live in this world that’s competing with itself constantly, and is there a way for us to find a middle ground in it?”
LAB’s theater space is small, and a devoted audience returns time and time again to see plays they can’t see anywhere else.
Roberston is proud of this paticular accomplishment. “I think that’s an incredibly important role in our community,” he declares.
“I’m passionate about doing new works, and about working with young theater artists and helping them grow into professionals. And being able to grow into longstanding practices of theater artistry.”
Gabridge will attend a talkback following the Friday, Sept. 8 performance.
Find information and tickets at the LAB website.