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In a small Oregon town, the play's the thing

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Opening July 31 is a new work adapted and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Frank Galati. Commissioned by OSF, Mr. Galati's "Oedipus Complex" is based on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, plus the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre. It's described in advance as "exploring the profound impact of the Oedipus story on the psyche of the 20th century and its prevalence in literature, theater, and film." Not for all tastes, perhaps, (or for youngsters), but it promises to be a thought-provoking and controversial addition to the theatrical mix here.

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The story of how a little summer outfit off the beaten path grew to become one of the country's top theater organizations is one of luck, pluck, and vision.

"Culture" (in a formal sense) got launched here with the first Chautauqua building in 1893. Performers such as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryant, plus the supposedly healthy "Lithia water," drew families from miles around.

The Chautauqua movement died out a few decades later, but the cement walls of the old building in a park in the center of town remained.

In 1935, Angus Bowmer - a young teacher and amateur actor - persuaded town officials to put up $400 to produce three Shakespeare plays inside the walls of the old Chautauqua over the Fourth of July weekend. Anticipating a financial loss, officials scheduled boxing matches onstage as well. When the finances were tallied, the Bard had beaten the pugilists at the box office. With a faith borne out by history, Mr. Bowmer called it the "first annual" Shakespeare festival. Except during World War II, it's been going ever since.

Over the years, productions became more professional, the 1,200-seat Elizabethan Theater evolved and grew to its present form, and two indoor theaters were added to the complex, which is in the center of town and at the entrance to a 93-acre park that wanders upstream past duck ponds, tennis courts, and a Japanese garden to the local swimming hole in the forest above.

In a sense, Ashland is a clear example of the "old West" of ranching, logging, and mining overtaken by the "new West" of outdoor recreation, refined culture, and history as education and entertainment.

Within easy daytripping distance are Crater Lake National Park, the coast redwoods, salmon fishing, and Jacksonville, Ore., an old gold-mining town designated a National Historic Landmark. Jacksonville also is home to the Britt Festivals, a Wolftrap-style setting that hosts performers ranging from Frederica von Stade to Lyle Lovett.

The Sierra Club and commercial outfitters lead day hikes, mountain-bike runs, and white-water trips into the surrounding Siskiyou and Klamath mountains - an area the World Conservation Union considers to be "of global botanical significance."

The "wildland-urban interface," as they say, is just a couple of blocks from the town center. Deer (and the occasional black bear or cougar) can be spotted in neighborhoods.

But there are no more sawmills here. Art galleries, bookstores, and B & B's abound. Five-acre homesites and hobby vineyards are replacing working ranches on the hillsides. It has become, to use the trendy phrase, "micropolitan."

More and more, the population is made up of retirees and those who bring a job with them - many of them "equity émigrés" who sell their tract houses in the overheated California real estate market, leave the high-pressure lifestyle behind, and buy or build their dream house with a view.

That's the life many visitors here aspire to. Or as Sunset magazine has put it, Ashland is the kind of place "where the town itself is the major attraction."

But for most people, the reality is an activity-packed trip that nourishes body, mind, and spirit. Then comes the long drive home, with plenty of time to plan next year's visit.

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