Aug. 18 2010 10:37 AM

Ion's Song of Extinction keeps getting in its own way

theatre
Lily Forrestal (Robin Christ) tries to repair the tempestuous relationship between her son Max (Matthew Alexander) and his dad.

If you see Ion Theatre Company's Song of Extinction, please check out a pretty cool piece of acting by Matthew Alexander, who plays frenzied, disillusioned high-school sophomore Max Forrestal. Max makes a big fat chore out of trudging along with his viola, handling it like it was a sack of trash or an unwanted pet dog—hardly the way to treat the signature instrument of Antonin Dvorak, his idol. That's what happens to your spirit when your mom's dying of cancer and your dad can't yank his head out of his ass long enough to take charge.

Alexander joins the rest of the cast in crafting excellent nuances like that, little stuff that reveals big things about the people they play. By all means, see this show for these subtleties and their roles in illustrating Max's triumph over adversity with the help of a tough, sympathetic teacher—but don't be surprised if you find yourself longing for more.

As good as Song of Extinction is, a certain shrillness sets in after the first 10 minutes. Playwright EM Lewis has loaded her script with far too many scenes of roughly similar length; our interest in the characters is thus as scattershot as the installments themselves, because Lewis has hobbled our chances to make their acquaintances.

Extinction—the eradication of a fully evolved species—touches the lives of Ellery Forrestal (Tom Hall) and Khim Phan (Diep Huynh) with the same intensity. Ellery, Max's father, is a biologist whose pleas for the preservation of a Bolivian beetle's environment fall on the deaf ears of ruthless developer Spencer Farmer (a good Gill Morris in a role that doesn't really go anywhere). Khim is Max's biology instructor, who speaks eloquently and chillingly about the killing-fields atrocities in his native Cambodia (and who has a very funny scene about Thanksgiving 40 years ago with his host family in Wisconsin). Khim accompanies Lily (Robin Christ), Ellery's cancer-stricken wife, on her final earthly dream—a fantasy trip to the Bolivia Ellery loved during the family's better days. From there, the relationship between Ellery and Max shows its first inklings of improvement. In the grand scheme, Khim notes, extinction is really more about becoming.

Max's intense dislike of Ellery; Khim's quiet, humane intercession as Lily faces death; Ellery's obsequious awe at all things biological; Dr. Dorsey's youthful regret about Lily's condition (featuring Dylan J. Seaton in an unnecessary role): Director Claudio Raygoza makes wonderful use of Lewis' ideas behind her creations in bringing these elements to maturity. While Lewis' penchant for vignettes isn't fatal to Raygoza's efforts by any means, it sure would have been nice to meet these folks on their own terms.

This review is based on the opening matinée of Aug. 14. Song of Extinction runs through Sept. 4 at BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $10- $25. iontheatre.com. Write to marty@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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