In Shepherdstown, Festival Slate Pulses With Political Tension

(Photos By Ron Blun Photography)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Prompted perhaps by lingering unease, playwrights in this postcard-quaint town are reaching for their Tasers.

So one might conclude from visiting the Contemporary American Theater Festival, where this year's repertoire is strikingly political: Three of the productions respond to the tensions that have gripped the world since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The festival mounts several plays of recent vintage each summer, and this year, two of the four selections feature a character wielding a stun gun.

Coincidence? It hardly seems so.

Jason Grote's "1001," a tantalizing fever-dream of a play, strews modern geopolitical allusions amid shards of the Arabian Nights legends. Lee Blessing's heavy-handed "Lonesome Hollow" -- the lineup's only world premiere -- muses on the precariousness of civil liberties in today's America. And "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," which arrives at CATF trailing clouds of controversy, samples the writings of a young American who was killed in 2003 while working as an activist in Gaza.

The other play, Richard Dresser's "The Pursuit of Happiness," steers clear of global crises, yet the comedy harbors enough anxiety that when a stun gun materializes, it's not out of place.

This work -- part of Dresser's trilogy about class in America (the first installment, "Augusta," came to CATF last year) -- depicts a well-off couple who plunge into existential free fall when their daughter refuses to go to college. Faced with this rebellion, Annie (Andrea Cirie) and Neil (Frank Deal) start to question their own life choices and the American Dream. So who can blame Neil, an avid gardener, for seeking comfort in a weapon that can blast an electroshock through vegetable-chomping critters?

"The Pursuit of Happiness" is more convincing than "Augusta," which dealt with the working class -- Dresser seems to be more comfortable writing about the better-off, delivering laugh lines with a tidy regularity, like a sitcom. But it's an entertaining sitcom, cast with top-drawer actors, as are all the festival productions this year.

"Pursuit" director Ed Herendeen (also the festival's founder) extends the coziness factor with Beatles excerpts that underscore scene transitions. But the set by Robert Klingelhoefer (scenic designer for all the shows) hints at social insecurity, with a montage of plywood house walls that look as if they might collapse in a strong wind.

"Lonesome Hollow," on the other hand, channels an unease that's moral rather than economic. Blessing has conjured an Orwellian future in which sex offenders are imprisoned for life in concentration camps, and where even artists who work with nudity are threatened by encroaching despotism. In the camp of Lonesome Hollow, the gentle photographer Tuck (Sheffield Chastain) rubs shoulders with a pedophile named Nye (the splendidly leering Lou Sumrall), while the tyrannical but sexy bureaucrat Mills (Cirie) patrols with a Taser in her purse.

Although apparently inspired by news accounts of the warehousing of ex-convict sex offenders, "Lonesome Hollow" -- directed by Hal Brooks -- could double as an over-obvious parable about the Patriot Act. Blessing spoon-feeds his audience with an idea they could probably grasp on their own: that creeping totalitarianism -- even if motivated by good intentions -- is, well, a bad thing.

For added profundity, the dramatist sticks in a whopping metaphor: Tuck is building a labyrinth as a tool for spiritual contemplation -- a brick outline that broods in the center of the grassy set. Is society entering an ethical maze it will not be able to escape? If you don't register the question, or spot its relevance to the war on terror, you might need a wake-up blast from Mills's Taser.

By comparison, "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" seems downright subtle. Based on Corrie's diaries as edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, this 90-minute monologue has sparked fury over the past few years with its pro-Palestinian viewpoint. A New York production was famously canceled, and here in Shepherdstown, an organization with the Web site denounces the play in two pages of paid advertising inside the program.

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