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Second-Act Playwright: From Numbers to Words with David Alex

David Alex and Eroica castDavid Alex isn't your average workshop-hustling, grant-grubbing, chardonnay-swilling playwright, but while the term "hobbyist" can be invoked as a pejorative, its negative connotations are undeserved.

A former high school mathematics teacher and track coach, he has served on the administrative boards of several arts organizations, including the Joseph Jefferson committee. He has been married to the same woman for nearly forty years. He is an opening-night regular and can be spotted in lobbies, greeting and chatting. Oh, and his resume since 1997 encompasses a bushel of play readings and productions throughout the United States, as well as a fistful of awards in recognition of same.

It's been said that mathematicians and poets share a common sensibility, since both deal in abstractions. Theater is physical, though, solidly-crafted in its every detail, so how did Alex come to make the leap from theorems to dialogue?

"There was no leap." Alex assures me, "I was always writing. Puppet shows at the age of ten, short stories in high school, and the dormitory newspaper in college [Bowling Green State University]. My interest in math began with geometry—specifically, the two-column proofs that so many of my students dread. The challenge of assembling all those infinitesimally precise components to arrive at a similarly precise conclusion appealed to me immediately, leading me to pursue a double major in Math and English."

Many Alex plays are premised on two dissimilar personalities arriving at an accord after resolving their differences—frequently following events as extreme as they are conveniently contrived—making for a didacticism hearkening to the educational imperative of "getting everybody talking."

Alex does not deny encouraging audiences to question their presuppositions, whatever those may be. "Math is logical, but life is not. Often when I write, it feels like the two sides of my brain are pulling against each other."

His play titled N (as in "the N-word"), a semi-finalist in the National Arts Club Playwrights First Competition, illustrates this dialectic. It proposes a young white actor who refuses to utter the forbidden epithet onstage, but whose day job as caregiver to an elderly African-American woman of conservative views—voted for Goldwater in 1964 and admires Clarence Thomas—exposes him to dissenting opinions.

Called by its author "the most difficult play I've ever written," this parable of generational conflict was recently granted a staged reading as part of DePaul University's Black History Month Celebration, where post-show commentary ranged from, "You're an actor! It's the character, not you," to "I'm tired of that word," along with the inevitable variations on "I know somebody/I don't know anybody who [says that word]." Gradually, however, the discussion turned—exactly as its author hoped it would—from personal responses to issues in "the bigger world."

Alex's newest play, Eroica, appears under the auspices of actor/director/producer Maggie Speer's Azusa Productions. The two long-time collaborators met during readings of Onto Infinity in the mid-1990s. Later, in her capacity as Artistic Director for Waukegan's Bowen Park Theatre, Speer inaugurated a New Plays series encompassing full productions of two Alex plays. "All writers should be so lucky to have [a colleague] like Maggie!" declares Alex, "Her insight has significantly influenced my writing."

Despite its title referencing Beethoven's Third Symphony, Eroica's universe revolves around domestic conflict during the 1960s when the Vietnam War and the fear of being conscripted into armed service split the nation irrevocably. Alex insists that his play is not just about draft-dodging, but "honor in relationships—between a man and his wife, his family and with himself."

He sighs, then recites the humble mantra that he invokes before every production, "I know what play I wanted to write. The director and actors tell me what play I wrote. The two are not always the same."

Eroica runs July 9 - August 7 in the Redtwist Theatre storefront.

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