You don’t have to be a Jewish mother to freak out when your son goes missing at summer camp. But it helps.
That’s the subtext in “Another Way Home,” a new play with both comic and tragic overtones making its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 13.
The dramatis personae of “Another Way Home” include Phillip and Lillian, the overbearing parents of Joey, a troubled teen burdened by a goulash of diagnoses from ADHD to oppositional defiant disorder, and Nora, a gifted teen obsessed with Taylor Swift. The family system unravels when Joey disappears during a tense parental visit to his summer camp.
Hello muddah, hello faddah.
Playwright Anna Ziegler had no such neurotic family system growing up, but she had little trouble imagining how it feels to disappear. As a child, she once got separated from her mother in a department store.
“It may have been 10 minutes but it did feel like forever,” Ziegler says from her New York home. “It stayed with me. Not that the play was based on that moment. [It] really came out of wanting to explore a difficult relationship between parents and a child.”
In the play, Phillip and Lillian may be baby boomers, but they exude a kind of Yiddishkeit more commonly seen in previous generations. Ziegler, 32, envisioned them as a typically assimilated modern American Jewish family in crisis.
“Having [Joey] disappear is a way to throw everything into relief,” Ziegler adds. “The stakes would be so high. They have to face themselves.”
The characters of the play’s two teens were drawn from Ziegler’s experience working in a Brooklyn high school. That’s where she learned that many kids today are obsessed with singer Taylor Swift, whose popularity the playwright does not fully understand.
Similarly, the character of Joey seems to act out in all the ways rebellious teenage boys are wont to do. Ziegler was deliberately vague in pinpointing his affliction beyond a generalized teenage angst.
“I wanted to try to toe a very fine line so it wasn’t totally clear what was wrong with Joey,” she says, “whether he was just a [messed] up kid or something more was wrong with him. Our culture leaps to make diagnoses because it’s comforting to have a label.”
Does Joey turn up the end of the play? See the show to find out.
A graduate of Yale and the NYU/Tisch playwriting program, Zeigler has had many plays produced over her still-young career at theaters in New York, across the country, Britain and Europe. She’s won numerous playwriting awards, and currently has a screenplay in development with Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz.
Like the family she created for “Another Way Home,” Ziegler grew up in an assimilated New York Jewish family, noting she was “taught not to be scared of being Jewish. It’s only as I’ve gotten older [that] I have a less casual relationship with Judaism.”
She laced some of that into earlier drafts of the play, making the mother, Lillian, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She dropped that in favor of making the family’s ethnicity less distinct, though she is explicit in her instructions that they are a Jewish family.
Ziegler is happy to have one of her plays produced at the Magic, of which she says, “The Magic’s reputation is pretty huge nationally, which is funny considering it’s a pretty small theater. It’s exciting and nerve-racking.”
Though the play had been workshopped and given staged readings before, Ziegler says, the Magic Theatre production is “the first time people are memorizing their lines.” n
“Another Way Home” runs Nov. 13-Dec. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, S.F. (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org