Blood is thicker than water — but how does it stack up against the power of thought? That question is getting a satisfying theatrical workout at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the annual showcase for recently minted plays in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Suitably enough, given that rhetoric about “families” — family values, middle-class families’ tax burdens, and more — always flies thick and fast in an election season, the smart, generally engrossing repertoire on view at the 2012 festival includes several plays that grapple with the notion of kinship. The most resonant works in the lineup, Johnna Adams’s “Gidion’s Knot” and Bob Clyman’s “The Exceptionals,” are particularly eloquent studies of people caught between the competing demands of reason, morality and family.
One of two world premieres on the festival roster, the harrowing “Gidion’s Knot” imagines a confrontation in a fifth-grade classroom. In the immersive production staged by CATF Producing Director Ed Herendeen, the audience sits at desks beneath glaring fluorescent lamps. Maps, flags and pictures of U.S. presidents plaster the walls, and construction paper, glue and crayons litter a nearby countertop. (Margaret McKowen designed the set.)
This is territory ordinarily ruled by a straitlaced teacher named Heather (the superbly tense Joey Parsons). But a new power dynamic sets in when Heather meets with Corryn (the impressively volcanic Robin Walsh) after a disciplinary incident involving Corryn’s son. As terse civilities yield to venomous debate, the play ponders high-stakes issues: What is the purpose of art? Of education? Does the need to give children a safe, nurturing environment outweigh the importance of free speech? What do we owe to creatures we love? Boldly and skillfully, Adams embeds these and other questions in a narrative that is as elegant as it is chilling. Theatergoers may want to avoid seeing the show right before a meal.
The mood is lighter in “The Exceptionals,” directed by Tracy Brigden. (The play premiered at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in Lowell, Mass., in 2011.) Set in the offices of a business that is part scientific research center, part fertility clinic — Luciana Stecconi designed the aptly antiseptic chrome-and-white-fabric set — Clyman’s drama centers on two women who have conceived children with the help of sperm from an elite set of donors. When the research center proposes to educate the kids, who are extraordinarily gifted, at an exclusive school, mothers Allie (Anne Marie Nest) and Gwen (Rebecca Harris) must choose between values — a happy home, a strong marriage, a healthy society, basic fairness — that may not be compatible.
In a monologue, a research center executive named Claire (Deirdre Madigan, radiating sinister poise) foresees the result of the social-engineering project Allie and Gwen have joined: Society will divide into two groups, the genetic “haves” and the genetic “have-nots,” that will increasingly diverge. “Evolution travels in only one direction,” Claire notes matter-of-factly. “I would like nothing better than to stand here and tell you there’s a giant tent stretching all the way across the sky, big enough to cover everyone, but that just wouldn’t be honest.” This disturbing vision notwithstanding, “The Exceptionals” abounds in comic moments, thanks to the deadpan quips Clyman has tucked into his script. (“There is nothing you wouldn’t do for your child,” Claire says to Allie. “It’s why you’re here instead of on eBay, trying to find the last batch of ‘average’ semen before it’s thrown out.”) The interactions between Nest’s obstreperous and flaky Allie — she keeps her cellphone tucked down the front of her blouse — and Harris’s wearily competitive Gwen can also be very funny.