Contemporary American Theater Festival Gets Into Characters Worth Relating To

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Contemporary American Theater Festival, now under way in Shepherdstown, W.Va., is bearish on the subject of personal relationships. Betrayals jackknife through the plots of all five plays running in repertory on the stages of Shepherd University through Aug. 2. Each drama even suggests that, no matter how much time you spend bonding with another person, the depths of that individual's character will remain beyond your ken.

Fortunately for theatergoers, mysteries and treacheries can add up to diversion. Sure enough, while flaws mar a few of the scripts, the 2009 festival slate proves notably entertaining overall. Chalk up a good deal of the credit to propulsive acting and spiffy design, overseen by two directors, Ed Herendeen (the festival's founder) and Liesl Tommy.

Now in its 19th season, the festival annually draws together actors, directors, dramatists and other theater folk to mount plays of recent vintage. This year's offerings include two world premieres, the more satisfying being "The History of Light," Eisa Davis's poignant, if uneven, tale of love (romantic and family) and loss (ditto). Unfolding on a set dominated by a grand piano and two playground swings, with light bulbs and text-inscribed glass documents dangling overhead (Robert Klingelhoefer designed the scenery), the play chronicles the reunion of two long-lost friends, Soph (the luminous Amelia Workman) and Math (an appealingly geeky Jason Denuszek). Former school and college buddies who shared a passion for classical piano, the two have drifted apart: Soph is a cash-strapped singer, and Math a wealthy corporate executive who stifles his penchant for oddball rhetorical flights. Different as their lives have become -- they also happen to be of different races -- the two still connect.

Davis paints the anxious, hungry infatuation between them in achingly vivid colors, and director Tommy's in-the-round staging allows the audience to share in the duo's sense of self-conscious vulnerability. But the play's secondary plot, involving Turn, the political-activist father Soph never knew, feels a little sutured in. David Emerson Toney aces the part, his sonorous voice giving the oft-heard piano music a run for its money. But Lee Roy Rogers understandably has less success with the role of Suze, Turn's old girlfriend, who seems a plot device as much as a person (she mails Turn's old letters to Soph). Also awkward -- and impeding the narrative flow -- are scenes that take place in Soph's imagination and that reduce all the characters to elementary-school age. A little authorial tinkering might scour such stiltedness away from "History," allowing the resonances between the story lines to emerge more gracefully.

Sounding a grimmer note is the festival's other world premiere: "Dear Sara Jane" by Victor Lodato, whose plays "The Bread of Winter" and "The Woman Who Amuses Herself" aired at D.C.'s Theater Alliance this spring. The eponymous heroine of this 90-minute monologue, directed by Herendeen, is the chirpy young wife of a U.S. soldier who is serving abroad, presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan. A fan of sunshine, chard, and Arlington's Tomb of the Unknowns, Sara Jane may not be coping with the war quite as well as she thinks she is -- a point driven home by Christina Smith's aptly sinister sound design, with its bomb and gunfire noises and spooky screechings.

A few ominous revelations emerge, illuminating Sara Jane's marriage and her rapport with her disturbed twin sister. But the disclosures generate no suspense, and the play feels static right up until its out-of-left-field, politically pointed conclusion. On the bright side, actress Joey Parsons's performance is riveting. As she toddles around a white living room, wearing a green-and-white sundress and ballet flats (Margaret A. McKowen designed the set and costumes), sharing giggly confidences and flashing a crazed grin, this Sara Jane is both adorable and scary.

Parsons delivers another knockout turn in "Fifty Words," Michael Weller's splendidly unnerving riptide of a play. Produced in New York last year, "Fifty Words" contemplates a marriage that unravels during the course of a single night. In this version, adroitly directed by Herendeen, Parsons plays a frustrated former dancer wedded to an architect (the seductively roguish Anthony Crane). Crane and Parsons excel at packing subtext into every line or gesture: The flinging of a wine cork onto a table (Klingelhoefer crafted the yuppie-kitchen set), or a remark about the dishes to be used for Chinese takeout, can pack the violence of a bayonet thrust.

If "Fifty Words" is a steely look at resentment and perfidy in the domestic sphere, Beau Willimon's "Farragut North" gleefully studies those dynamics in insider politics. Inspired by Willimon's stint working for Howard Dean during the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, "Farragut North" premiered off-Broadway in 2008. The highlights of Herendeen's inexorably watchable production include Eric Sheffer Stevens's tense portrait of a press secretary; Anderson Matthews's depiction of a jovially duplicitous campaign manager; and Heidi Niedermeyer's appearance as a confident intern. David Remedios's sound design -- especially a recurring cacophony of overlapping TV news program themes -- ratchets up the tension, often while a TV screen flickering with images of news anchors trolleys above the stage.

Even paranoids have enemies, as "Farragut North's" characters know. Sharing that awareness are several personalities in Steven Dietz's "Yankee Tavern," directed by Liesl Tommy. By turns funny, chilling and tedious, "Yankee Tavern" takes place in a decrepit New York bar frequented by Ray (Matthews), a charming weirdo whose conspiracy theories attain the level of high art. Ray suspects skulduggery behind the moon landings, the 2001 terrorist attacks, Al Gore's Nobel Prize, and the Starbucks logo ("the Pagan Goddess With the Pointed Crown"). At first, the bar owner's fiancee, Janet (Anne Marie Nest, coping with an underwritten part), takes Ray's beliefs with a grain of salt -- but an encounter and a deception teach her otherwise.

Elaborate conspiracy theories are just as tiresome when uttered by fictional figures as when voiced by, say, the guy sitting next to you on Amtrak. Still, Matthews's craggy Ray is a fantastic character -- hilarious and sad, shuffling around in a dirty orange sweater, ranting about the U.S. wedding industry ("secretly financed by an offshore consortium of big box bridal shops") and mockingly genuflecting to the phrase "the war on terror." It's worth sitting through "Yankee Tavern" just to relish his eccentricity. After all, when you relate to a real human being, you invite double-crossing; when you befriend a dramatic creation, you know you're pretty safe.

Contemporary American Theater Festival, through Aug. 2 at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 304-876-3473 or 800-999-2283 or visit

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