"Based on a story by Philip K. Dick" has become a standard big-screen credit since 1982, when Ridley Scott adapted the writer's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" into the Hollywood sci-fi benchmark "Blade Runner." Adaptations of works by Dick, who died that same year at age 53, include twice-made "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Paycheck," "A Scanner Darkly" and "Next."
Who was this prolific writer who inspired so many? Some might say he was a madman whose final decade was defined by vivid visions that caused him to question his relationships to religion and reality.
A charismatic bear of a man, he also was a prolific pulp writer and a lot to take on in one person.
Playwright Victoria Stewart was intrigued when she read Lawrence Sutin's biography "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick," which inspired her "800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick," a play focusing on the writer's trajectory following his well-documented visions of 1974. Her play marks the return of Caravan Theatre, which will perform in Pittsburgh Playwrights' Downtown home on Liberty Avenue.
Ms. Stewart read PKD's works and the biography before she became a playwright, and his late-in-life visions and their aftermath stayed with her.
"I come from a fairly religious family, so I am interested in religion and how it affects people and how it affects art, because I think a lot of great art comes from religion, from people trying to figure out something that's almost impossible to figure out. That's what I was drawn to."
The folks at Caravan -- John Gresh, Dana Hardy and Tony Bingham -- have been holding onto the script for four years. Ms. Hardy originated the role of Dick's wife when she and Ms. Stewart were in graduate school, and she will reprise the role here, while Mr. Gresh will take on the title role.
Caravan, which has been on hold since the economy went bust in 2008, made a comeback by raising money through a private donor and a two-night reading of selected scenes at the New Hazlett Theater, plus a successful effort on the fundraising website Kickstarter.
"I've always been a big Philip K. Dick fan and always wanted to do this play, so we finally jumped into the deep end of the pool," Mr. Gresh said.
Caravan had performed "Savage in Limbo" in 2007 and "Risk Everything" in 2008. The timing seemed right for a 2012 comeback with this play because of the convergence of several factors -- "The Exegesis of Jesus," a book containing selections of Dick documenting his religious and visionary experiences, was published recently, and the remake of "Total Recall," based on a Dick story, was hitting theaters.
"We said OK, this is it, we're going to do it," Mr. Gresh said. "Then I looked at the script again as an actor instead of a producer, and I went, oh, it's 111 pages, and I'm on every page. Why did I say I wanted to do this? It's daunting. It scares me, but it scares me in a good way. ... What I think is very interesting about Victoria's play, [the character of Dick] is a human being who was wrestling with profound truths, but he's not a saint by any stretch of the imagination."
Ms. Stewart compared Dick's experiences and writings to those of another famous science-fiction author.
"He and L. Ron Hubbard, they were writing at the same time, and L. Ron Hubbard actually did start a religion," the playwright said. "I think most of us might look at [Scientology] as, that's crazy, and yet there are well-established people who have embraced it. And Philip K. Dick, if he wasn't a hermit, which he somewhat was, I think he could have done the same thing. He had similar ideas about our relationship to outer space and aliens who are transmitting information."
Trying to make sense of the visions, hallucinations and dreams that took hold of his life, Dick described the experiences as a "Vast Active Living Intelligence System" and wrote the 1980 novel "VALIS" as an explanation. He was sorting through his self-diagnosed schizophrenia -- "I think he would be the first person to say, 'Am I crazy?' " Ms. Stewart said -- until his death in 2008.
She uses devices unlike anything in her other plays to get at what's eating at Philip K. Dick; for example, swings in time, from past to future; a cat puppet that gives a voice to the pet; and a silent woman who haunts scenes (Dick's twin sister died weeks after their birth).
Those elements might appeal to the Philip K. Dick fans who aren't necessarily theatergoers. For example, Mr. Gresh mentions the group PARSEC -- the Pittsburgh Area Real-time Scientifiction Enthusiasts Consortium -- as sci-fi fans who might find that theater is for them. They know that there may be profound truths in imaginative storytelling.
"There's a great line in this play," Mr. Gresh said. "He says, 'Saying it's science fiction doesn't mean it's not true. It just means it's not true yet.' Somebody has to think ahead and imagine what life could be. People like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne imagining what advances we could make are like that."
Those sci-fi writers are considered visionaries today. The Library of America described Philip K. Dick's writings that were gathered for its collection of his works: "Posing the questions 'What is human?' and 'What is real?' in a multitude of fascinating ways, Dick produced works -- fantastic and weird, yet developed with precise logic, marked by wild humor and soaring flights of religious speculation -- that are startlingly prescient imaginative anticipations of 21st-century quandaries."
The play "800 Words" explores the man behind the writing.
"Yes, there's insanity there," admitted Ms. Stewart, "but also a lot of trying to get to the bottom of what his relationship to God is, and I think that's something a lot of sane people might be doing, wrestling with faith and wrestling with doubt. A lot of deep thinkers and great thinkers spend a lot of time thinking like that; he pretty much thought about nothing else for many years of his life."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 13, 2012 4:00 AM