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Bride With White Hairs: Sandra Tsing Loh examines the concept of worry in her new play.

One Nation Under Prozac

Writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh worries she'll never stop worrying

By Todd Inoue

THE LAST TIME Sandra Tsing Loh appeared in the South Bay, it was in February 2001. Her autobiographical one-woman play Aliens in America was a smash hit, extending its month-long run at the San José Repertory Theatre. Aliens, an affectionate mishmash of memories about growing up the daughter of highly irreverent immigrant parents in the shade of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, became the third-longest-running nonmusical play at the Rep.

Since then, Tsing Loh has been busy holding down her duties as an NPR commentator for Marketplace and continuing her two-minute tirades about Los Angeles--The Loh Life--on Santa Monica public-radio station KCRW. She also delivered her second child, Madeline Peng, and her third book, A Year in Van Nuys. She returns to San Jose as part of the Rep's New America Playwrights Festival, for which she will perform her latest one-woman play, I Worry.

The piece, she says, started to take shape Sept. 11. Like many others, Sandra overdosed on television news and paranoid emails, and she took to reading three different newspapers, before finally collapsing in a catatonic state of media oversaturation. The breaking point: reading about the protective caves of Afghanistan that are immune to carpet bombs.

"I almost started panicking," she says, calling from her Southern California home."Does Bush know about the caves? Because it's buried on page 9 of the L.A. Times. Maybe he doesn't have time to read the L.A. Times cover to cover like I do. I realized I was truly going nuts at that point if I thought I knew more than the whole U.S. government."

The Angeleno decided to embrace worry as part of her new work. She examines the passivity and stress that arrive from running out of places to store a glut of information. She pokes fun at the triviality of worrying about inappropriate things in post-9/11 America, like Michelle Kwan's figure skating meltdown.

"I worry about her endorsements," she explains, "and then I start worrying that I'm a shallow person--that with all the terrible stuff going on in the world that I can have space in my brain to worry about Michelle Kwan. There's so much undigested information from the media that you can't organize it in order of priority."

I Worry also uses audience participation. Tsing Loh begins with her Top 10 Worries of the Day. Audience members are asked to submit their own three worries. Responses have ranged from the interesting (personal work-related worries about leaked memos) to the absurd (Starbucks baristas putting whole milk in their lattes instead of skim milk).

"Those have been quite fascinating," she says. "People tend to worry about where they parked their car or losing [their] hair. And cats! People worry their cats all the time. Are they getting fat? Do they ignore them? It's fascinating to see what worries people."

There is political content, but Tsing Loh says I Worry is not a political piece. Instead she needles our news-obsessed society. She breaks the third wall, testing the audience's anxiety limits. And yet with all the tension, Tsing Loh says that I Worry ends in the same place as Aliens in America does: "It comes full circle. It forgives everyone in the world and itself. It's a harrowing journey theaterwise. Aliens ends on an image that is quite bittersweet and warm; this piece ends in the same place, believe it or not."

Most of all, she wants people to get out from under the dark cloud of worry. "This piece seeks to make a community out of the people in there at the time," she says. "It's an old-fashioned notion of theater. It's my own town hall meeting of one, and it's a completely fascinating piece to do."

I Worry plays June 15 at 3pm, June 16 at 6pm and June 17-18 at 7pm at the San José Repertory Theatre, 191 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18 and available through the theater (408.367.7255). For information about the New America Playwrights Festival, check www.sjrep.com.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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