Talk with a prizewinning student playwright, and a look at his play

Down at the train depot in Dennis Smith's prizewinning play ``Excursion Fare'' you may run into Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater, and Jimmy Hoffa. But no one wants to board the train, just as no one is eager to climb aboard the cloud-wreathed 747 with its celestial flight attendants in the movie ``Heaven Can Wait.'' Dennis Smith of the University of Oregon, winner of the National Student Playwriting Award, has written a brilliant and provocative play in ``Excursion Fare,'' one of six winning student productions staged here during the 17th annual American College Theater Festival at Kennedy Center.

Smith's play is set in a fly-specked old-fashioned railroad station with dun-brown walls, World War II war posters, and magazine racks stuffed with phantom magazines: copies of old Life and Look issues. It takes a while for it to dawn on the audience that the passengers who straggle in and the salty stationmaster are waiting here, in a way station for the transition known as death They are waiting not for Godot but for an express to eternity.

And they have one thing in common; all the characters in this dark comedy represent people whose bodies are still listed among the missing years later. Aviator Amelia Earhart, lost over the Pacific in a round-the-world flight; anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, missing during a New Guinea expedition; Judge Joseph Crater, who disappeared mysteriously during a Tammany Hall corruption investigation; Ambrose Bierce, the dour journalist whose final days in Mexico are a blank page, and former Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, last seen in a restaurant parking lot, now among the disappeared. Nazi Martin Bormann also makes a brief appearance.

There are also several fictional characters, among them a prospector, a college writing professor, a suicidal girl, and the stationmaster who dispenses peppermint or rose hip tea and wisdom. Everyone has a ticket to ride, he assures them, just look.

Smith has handled his somber plot with a compassionate wit, imagination, and insight. He has a keen ear for dialogue, keeping it lively even when the subject plunges deep into philosophical issues. In a telephone interview from Oregon, Smith said of the play:

``The play is based on simply a Christian belief that God does exist and that it's a good idea for man to be accountable for his actions now and expiate his guilt now. It's simply a doctrine of moral behavior, ethical behavior. . . . Henry, the stationmaster, gets very upset, goes into a diatribe about how contemporary man has set aside any sense of moral responsibility. If there is a section in the play that is the author's message, that is it . . . that harangue by Henry the stationmaster.''

Another character who shares the author's voice is Bookman, the young college professor who speeds across a bridge, doesn't make it, and ends up at the depot. He is a writer who, learning from the other amused passengers of their real destination, bitterly regrets the stories he hasn't written yet and the way he's treated the girl he loved. ``There are no instances in my life that parallel his, but [it's] those kinds of fears, and being a child of the '60s, and all that,'' says Smith.

Smith has been earning his master of fine arts in theater at the University of Oregon, after a three-year hitch with the TonyAward-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For ten years he worked as an actor and screenwriter in Los Angeles, where he appeared in several TV series and made-for-TV movies, as well as with the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival.

The winning of the National Student Playwriting Award has given Smith's career a dramatic boost. It has netted him a management contract with the prestigious William Morris Agency, which has awarded him a cash prize of $2,500; the publication of his play by Samuel French; a paid membership in the Dramatists' Guild; and three performances of his play at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

All this has encouraged him, he says, in his dream: ``I will try to make a living as a dramatic writer, in theater and cinema. And he adds, ``I'm hoping the prize will open some doors.'' Right now, he says ruefully, he's earning a living selling snow skis. But that hasn't kept him from schussing through scripts; he's at work on a new play, based on the life of a fabled 9th-century woman Pope, ``Pope Joan,'' which he says in Hollywood selling style, ``has elements of `Amadeus,' `The Lion in Winter,' and `Nicholas Nickleby.' '' Smith has also been working on a script for ``The Presidential Imperative,'' a mix of political intrigue and social statement. Still in the wings is an idea for a musical based on ``Beauty and the Beast.''

While he'd like to write for Broadway or even Off Broadway production, he says, ``I firmly believe in the regional theater. It's enhanced American theater so much.'' And at this writing, ``Excursion Fare'' has had a nibble from one of the most celebrated regional theaters -- Arena Stage has just requested a script.

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