“What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare’s Juliet. According to The Urantia Book, a vast (2097 pages) and exhaustive tome, “Urantia” is the name by which the rest of the universe knows the planet we call Earth. In the universe of Congdon’s play, the “Formicans” — so-called because they use so much Formica in their homes — is the name by which alien anthropologists refer to suburban inhabitants of late 20th-century America. In both cases, the effect is an immediate — and dramatic — shift of perspective. In a way that pop psychologists never envisioned, we suddenly “see ourselves as others see us.”
For example, if you take a person from Finland or Cairo and set them in a suburban home in the United States, their first reaction would not likely be how much the home contained of a heat-resistant, wipe-clean, plastic laminate of paper or fabric with melamine resin (Formica). Nor would they scratch their heads and puzzle over the possible functions of a table and chair. On the other hand, “There was a problem with the Cairo production (of the Formicans),” Congdon told an interviewer, “The part where a woman compares herself with a cow. I gather that that was somehow objectionable in Egypt.”
The central story of the play, which unfolds within the context of the alien study, concerns a woman named Cathy, whose professor husband has impregnated one of his students. Packing a few things and grabbing her 16-year-old son, Eric, Cathy leaves New York and moves back to her parents’ home in a Colorado suburban development. Eric spends all day, every day, in a towering rage, while her father is in the process of slipping ever deeper into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s. On top of these woes and distractions, there is a neighbor named Jerry, an equal-opportunity conspiracy theorist who believes the Earth is overrun with extra-terrestrials and is trying to enlist Cathy as an ally — or, perhaps, lover. Then it gets worse.
It’s not everyone’s idea of comedy material, but Congdon pulls it off. Tales of the Lost Formicans is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Congdon, who teaches playwriting at Amherst College, has written 30 plays to date, and all are worth watching, but it is the Formicans that have kept her on the world’s stage.
Tales of the Lost Formicans plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 30. Tickets are $10 general admission, or $8 for seniors, students and military, and can be obtained from the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., by phone at 805.525.4645, or click here to order online.