It's not Eric Overmyer's fault he can't remember too much about one of his own plays. After all, the guy has written a lot of stuff.
Over the past couple of decades, Overmyer has lent his creative force to such classic TV shows as St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and lately, HBO's Treme, just to name a very few. And when he visits the Triangle on Sept. 18 to see the Deep Dish Theater production of his 1990 play Mi Vida Loca, his eyes will be as fresh as anybody's.
Maybe his memory will be jolted. Until then, if you ask him a question about, say, how interpretations of his family drama about a dope-addicted, grouchy patriarch and his dysfunctional family in the Pacific Northwest have evolved over the years, you'll likely get something like the following answer:
"I have no idea," he said. "I did it as kind of an exercise."
He recalls that, at the time, he knew like everybody else that the naturalistic family play was "sort of the dominant form of drama in the 20th century," so he decided to "take a stab at it."
He's lost track of it since it was first staged in workshop form in Manhattan. He does offer one pretty cool tidbit: The original cast included John Slattery, who plays adman Roger Sterling on AMC's hugely popular Mad Men.
He doesn't even know how Deep Dish's artistic director, Paul Frellick, got hold of the play. So Frellick filled in that information for him.
"I first read this piece in the mid-'90s," said Frellick. "I think I tripped across it in a theater book store in New York, as it wasn't in the collection of Eric's plays that I owned. I was immediately taken with the characters and the unusual narrative path it followed—hardly direct, but inexorable nevertheless."
Indeed, Mi Vida Loca is pointedly set in a remote spot near the ocean and otherwise seems removed from everyday existence, thus allowing the characters to develop in front of the audience. Time doesn't march but rather trudges on, in spite of the characters' delayed personal growth caused by years of living with Ajay (John Murphy), a junkie whose personality and needs overshadowed their own.
Frellick said that when the Chapel Hill theater company started 10 seasons ago, Overmyer was one of the first people he approached to serve on the advisory board (which he agreed to do).
"I'd been looking for an opportunity to produce Mi Vida Loca ever since," Frellick said. "This year finally felt right. Our capabilities as a company and our relationship with our audience were sufficiently strong, and Eric's sensibility seemed well-suited to these troubled times."
One big indicator of our troubled times was Hurricane Katrina, and Overmyer warms right up to that subject and his current project for HBO, Treme, deals with the aftermath.
He's the show's co-creator and co-executive producer, and he has lived part-time in New Orleans for about 21 years—drawn there, he says, for the same reason a lot of people were: the culture.
"The music, and the food, and the way people talked—like some people, I got it right away," he said. "Some people don't get it at all, and some people, it gets under your skin."
It's hard for him, understandably, to boil down what he and creative partner David Simon would like viewers to come away with when they watch Treme.
"What we wanted to do was make as truthful a fictional portrait of the city's struggle to return as possible," Overmyer said. "So I'm hoping that the viewers will come away with a better understanding of what New Orleans is, what its culture is, what it's like in the city after the storm. I think New Orleans is a tough thing to translate."
Overmyer said he's skeptical about the power of television fiction, no matter how good or groundbreaking it may be, to bring people around to reality.
"I don't know how you would measure it, but I'm doubtful that a show like The Wire has, say, much influence on the public policy vis-à-vis drugs. The Wire's position on the drug war was quite clear, and I don't believe anything was changed. A TV show like The Wire is influential in a certain cultural way ... but I doubt it has much influence in the real world."
That doesn't mean he doesn't continue to try.