Topicality and personality are dancing some pleasing duets at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the annual cavalcade of new and newish plays in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The five dramas and comedies that are running in rotating repertory at the festival, through Aug. 3, explore ripped-from-the-headlines topics such as economic inequality; prejudice against minorities and outsiders; and sexual assault in the military. Fortunately, for the most part, the playwrights have succeeded in weaving such themes into the lives of vibrant and quirky characters, whose vim, banter and idiosyncratic perspectives — channeled here by terrific actors — tend to banish the arid ponderousness that can be the bane of the Issue Play.
Perhaps the most memorable character appears in Thomas Gibbons’s “Uncanny Valley” — the festival’s most satisfying offering — and happens to be a robot. Julian (Alex Podulke) is a human-shaped artificial intelligence who can think, learn and maybe even feel, thanks to the coaching of a scientist named Claire (Barbara Kingsley). We meet Julian gradually, in brief, taut scenes: First he is just a head; later, he appears with a torso, then an arm, and so on, until we see him marching in ungainly fashion around Claire’s office as he tests his new legs.
The great pleasure of the production, directed by Tom Dugdale (and part of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere”), is watching the marvelous Podulke create a being that is at first mechanized, but then increasingly and eerily human in gaze, movement and speech. By the play’s final scene, after a thriller-worthy plot twist has radically altered Julian’s identity, this piece of anthropomorphized technology is almost —but, creepily, not quite —like an ordinary mortal.
But “Uncanny Valley” isn’t merely an acting tour de force: It asks philosophical questions. What makes us conscious? What makes us human? What are we trying to say when we crook our fingers in air quotes (a gesture Julian initially has trouble understanding)? Julian and Claire’s story is timely, given that, in real life, last month, a computer program may have passed the famous Turing Test (it convinced multiple interlocutors that they were conversing with a human). But the real strength of Gibbons’s play is that it makes us think, not so much about science news, but about our own awareness and the mysteries of the mundane.
Some searching questions also course through “Dead and Breathing,” Chisa Hutchinson’s lurchingly plotted but — in director Kristin Horton’s world premiere production — funny and spirited tale about assisted suicide (a topic many lawmakers around the world have been dealing with). Carolyn (Lizan Mitchell) is a rich, profane, cantankerous widow with terminal cancer, an acute death wish and a fondness for watching Chelsea Handler. When a devout Christian hospice nurse named Veronika (N.L. Graham) shows up, and turns out to be just as foul-mouthed and bossy as Carolyn, both women find themselves testing their moral and empathetic boundaries. Mitchell’s Carolyn is a spitfire in a bathrobe; Graham’s swanning Veronika is hugely watchable; and Hutchinson’s script, which could benefit from another draft, at least keeps the repartee and conflict bowling along.
Would that there were more conflict in the early part of Christina Anderson’s intriguing but slow and abstract play “The Ashes Under Gait City,” making its world premiere under Lucie Tiberghien’s direction. Set “sometime between Obama’s first term and Hillary Clinton’s second term,” the play follows an Internet sage named Simone the Believer (Daphne Gaines) as she strives to repopulate an Oregon town with the African Americans who have been scarce there since a devastating fire.
About four-fifths of the way into the play, danger materializes and the story becomes suspenseful and disturbing. But for the most part, Simone’s quest is too idealistic and vague (“I want to create a mecca for the displaced,” she explains at one point) and her smart, attractive followers — including D (Kaliswa Brewster) and Jeremiah (Biko Eisen-Martin) — are too amiable to generate much drama. The play’s motifs do echo many recent news events, including the politics of the current U.S. border crisis and controversies related to voter I.D. laws. This resonance, together with the arresting material that surfaces in the final minutes of “Gait City,” suggests that Anderson has hit on the seeds of a promising tale.
Charles Fuller seems to be striving for topicality and resonance in his earnest but tedious drama “One Night,” which premiered in New York in 2013. Directed here by CATF producing director Ed Herendeen, “One Night” explores the plight of Alicia G. (Brewster), an Iraq war veteran who is a survivor of sexual assault. Homeless, haunted by flashbacks and low on resources while she waits for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process her disability claim, Alicia depends on fellow vet Horace (Jason Babinsky); but their relationship may be more complicated than either of them realizes. Fuller, who won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with “A Soldier’s Play,” never gives this new military-themed work enough momentum, and the characters always seem to be embodied situations rather than individuals.
Herendeen embarked on a more rewarding task when he undertook the direction of “North of the Boulevard,” Bruce Graham’s diverting but serious-minded comedy. Providing a key assist in the staging is designer David M. Barber, whose meticulously cluttered garage set helps conjure up the world of Trip (Brit Whittle), a cash-strapped inner-city auto mechanic pining to move his family to a safer neighborhood. After a shocking turn of events, Trip and his argumentative friends — including the dweeby Larry (a droll Babinsky) — find themselves wading into ethically dubious waters.
Contemplating matters such as the wealth gap, the foreclosure crisis, urban decay and the way contemporary economic pressures feed racial tensions, “North of the Boulevard” (first produced in Philadelphia in 2013) is a play of the Occupy era. But the messaging doesn’t grate, because Graham has supplied such a wealth of funny, ricocheting dialogue (which Herendeen keeps moving at a splendid clip) and because the characters are so distinctive.
Particularly memorable is the cheerfully offensive Zee (Michael Goodwin), who has been banned from the local McDonald’s for stealing napkins. And then there’s Bear (Jamil A.C. Mangan), a security guard who voted for John McCain for president in 2008, and who has taken to gleaning life lessons from “The Tao of Pooh.” With such oddballs as these two holding forth, social criticism is very much a spectator sport.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through Aug. 3 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283 or visit www.catf.org.