Consider, if you will, a community theater stage. A family experiences trauma. A group of aliens, who wear sunglasses, watches. An audience laughs.
This is not "The Twilight Zone.'' This is "Tales of the Lost Formicans.'' It's in a dimension of sight, sound and mind a dimension known as the theater.
"You sort of feel like a traveler seeing these scenes, and you see them in an arena,'' said Penny Weiner, who directs "Formicans.'' "You're eavesdropping into their lives, and some pretty private things get full-blown.''
"Formicans'' opens Friday at the Lawrence Community Theatre. The 1989 play by Constance Congdon was produced at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, the Brass Tacks Theatre in Minneapolis, the Empty Space in Seattle, as well as theaters in New York and across the United States.
THE PLAY, as Weiner describes it, is an extremely funny and ultimately ironic look at an American family as it disintegrates. But Congdon's structure takes the play out of kitchen-sink realism: Actors not only play family members but also the Formicans, a band of space travelers making observations on what's going on. Meanwhile, the family's father (Charles Neuringer) slips into Alzheimer's disease, his daughter (Darcy Schild) moves from city to city with her teen-age son (Chris Godfrey) and Jerry (Brad Knauss), a family friend, finds the aliens are messing with his mind. The cast also includes Rich Kaler, Anne Schofield and Amy March.
"A lot of what I think moves me is that we get sucked into what disturbs these people and what goes on in their memory,'' Weiner said. "It's a funny play, but it also shows people from a point of view that's cold and frightening. I like contrasts.''
BECAUSE THE play shifts between scenes that go backward and forward in time, designer George Renault and light designer Charles Lown developed a multiplatformed set that follows the direction of the script.
"Of course, it's a chance to make a set that not traditional,'' Renault said. "The interesting thing is how you let actors move around so quickly from area to area. The whole set revolves around the aliens and their area, not so much in the environment of our world.''
Weiner, of course, is a playwright herself. A graduate of both Kansas University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Weiner has written more than a half-dozen plays, including several produced in Lawrence, Kansas City and in Austin, Tex. She also has collaborated with others in performance art, most recently with Mike Nelson in a production of "The Sky, The Sea and the Womb'' last November at the Lawrence Arts Center. Nelson creates the sound design for "Formicans.''
ON TOP of all that, Weiner won the first Kansas Arts Commission Playwriting Fellowship last year for her work, "Dancing with Fire.''
She said her work as a director frequently dovetails with her work as a playwright: She likes to write scripts and direct scripts that take an unusual view toward both life and dramaturgy.
"I like to do traditional things from time to time, just to see if I can,'' she said. "But really I like to do plays that draw you into their own world, and I think that's the kind of plays I write.''
In the case of "Formicans,'' its structure may seem strange to theatergoers used to more traditional fare. But it deals with a number of problems that are decidedly of this world and not of "The Twilight Zone.''
"It provides some home truths,'' Weiner said. "Its characters represent three generations, so there's something in there that almost everybody can identify with.''
"Tales of the Lost Formicans'' will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H., and again at 8 p.m. Jan. 30, 31 and Feb. 1 and 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the theater box office.