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`Lifting Off' compelling, poignant play

When Susan Erickson was a child, she designed and sewed bags for scientists to keep rattlesnakes in so they couldn't coil and strike. Now, she writes plays and "Lifting Off" has been chosen to represent New Mexico at the American College Theatre Festival in Tyler, Texas, which will run from Feb. 19-24.

It its own way, "Lifting Off," which will run briefly in Albuquerque, is like a bag full of warm-blooded vipers. It jumps unexpectedly, moves quickly and when it opens up, all hell breaks loose. Yet, the play has been crafted with great artistry, care and love.

Directed by David Richard Jones, a UNM English and theater professor, it tells the story of a remarkably bizarre Polish-American family that lives in an abandoned neighborhood in the Southwest.

The play opens with character Chuck Kosteneky practicing his valedictorian speech. Chuck, the 19-year-old son of Jim Senior and Doozey, dreams of becoming an astronaut and has been awarded a scholarship to attend NASA's space camp. He has also single-handedly kept his family from self-destructing while working the night shift at 7-Eleven, and somehow he has managed to raise his younger sister, Jim Junior.

Doozey is addicted to Valium and likes to shoot at people with her bow and arrow. Jim Senior, a mechanic, has lost his job and orders Chuck to get it back for him. Jim Junior has just been expelled from school.

Each member of the family is in the midst of some personal disaster, and Chuck is no exception. He talks to an imaginary voice from NASA ground control and continually swigs Pepto Bismal to soothe his ulcers.

"What Chuck wants and what he needs are two different things," Erickson said. "The lift off he needs to do is an emotional one. He has created NASA ground control as a god or a father figure."

Chuck's story is compelling and poignant. All of the characters in "Lifting Off" are fully formed and sharply edged, each with its own history.

"`Lifting Off' has a great combination of an active, strong plot and extremely funny, quirky dialogue," Jones said. "There are a number of different stories all working through each other."

Jones said that Erickson is a good enough playwright to be writing commercial comedies for Hollywood films and television sitcoms.

Erickson, a student in UNM's masters of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing program, is a fearlessly honest playwright. Her career began when she was in her early 20s, when she collaborated on "Ancient Ooze," a touring children's play about evolution. "Ancient Ooze" offended the anti-evolution parents in a few of the more conservative places it visited.

"We got kicked out of town," Erickson said proudly. "We had the curtains drawn on us mid-show and we were escorted to the county line."

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Her plays have been produced all over the country. Her one-act play, "The Cat Whisperer," - a parody of "The Horse Whisperer" movie - was made into a short film that has been playing in film festivals nationwide.

Born and raised in Tucson, Ariz., Erickson has taught theater and directed shows with inmates in a medium security federal prison, been an accountant for a racecar company, and sung in San Francisco nightclubs. She moved to Albuquerque 10 years ago as a single mother with two young daughters, and started her own Montessori school.

"I wanted to be able to make a living while having an active role in raising my kids," she said.

Molly, her oldest daughter, is now 17 and plays Jim Junior in "Lifting Off."

"Lifting Off" will be performed at Highland High School, 4700 Coal Ave. S.E., Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds from the performances will go toward sending the production to the Texas competition. Tickets cost $10 for general admission and $6 for students, faculty, staff and seniors. For more information, call 277-4332 or 277-2441.

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