"YOU HAVE the oldest town in West Virginia producing the newest plays."
That's how founder and director Ed Herendeen succinctly describes the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which this month celebrates 15 years of staging bold, provocative new plays in what might seem an unlikely venue -- Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Pshaw, Herendeen says, noting that from the beginning, "we knew we were in the right place at the right time -- with the right idea."
"Because we're focusing only on new work, I find it important that we're outside the glare of the urban spotlight. . . . Being in a small town, a beautiful small town, takes the pressure off. It doesn't have the commercial pressure." Plus, "once [the CATF artists] get here, they live together, they're here 24/7, which creates a unique environment. . . . The conversation never stops. It creates an atmosphere of working hard and playing hard."
Visitors to Shepherdstown, a repertory festival in the best sense of the word, can take in all four mainstage offerings in one busy weekend. Among the most highly anticipated works this season is Sam Shepard's dark comedy "The God of Hell," which somehow manages to examine the zeitgeist from the bucolic confines of a Wisconsin farm, albeit one intruded upon by a stranger selling red, white and blue cookies. Herendeen pronounces Shepard's alternately humorous and horrifying tale "profound," calling it a play for our time -- and beyond.
"Will ['God of Hell'] have staying power in five years? Yes. Fear will always be here, paranoia will always be here. I would like to think that it wouldn't stay like this, but that's not very likely," he says with a sigh. And there's something equally timeless about Shepard's use of comedy to poke fun at our divisions. His deft way of "attacking the government with laughter," says Herendeen, puts Shepard in a class with Moliere, whose political satire drew blood during the reign of Louis XVI.
Contemporary politics, and their consequences, find their way into two other plays featured in this year's festival. There's "Sonia Flew," Melinda Lopez's drama about a family that flees the dangers of Castro's Cuba only to discover more dangers in its new homeland. Shifting between the present, when a mother faces her son's decision to fight in Iraq, and her own adolescence, when she was part of Operation Pedro Pan, in which 14,000 children were flown out of Cuba during the Castro revolution, " 'Sonia,' " says Herendeen, is "a play about holding on to your family, how families can be torn apart by governments, politics and war."
"American Tet," Lydia Stryk's tale of a proud military family whose patience with the present war is wearing thin, ties yet another past conflict to the present one in Iraq. There's the "Vietnam vet father and the son in Iraq, and you just wonder. . .," Herendeen says, his voice trailing off. "History does seem to repeat itself," he adds finally.
"It's no accident that writers are writing about war," says Herendeen, who notes that several scripts submitted for his consideration -- many written by women -- were clearly inspired by the Iraq war. Nevertheless, Herendeen claims he never centers the festival on a theme. "I look for work that I personally respond to. I like to be moved emotionally, moved intellectually. I'm looking for work that responds to today's world."
And although Sheri Wilner's "Father Joy" does not explicitly reference global conflicts, don't get the idea it's devoid of its own explosions. "It looks at the fragile bond between fathers and daughters," Herendeen says. "Sheri [Wilner] has put a character in her play who's inspired by the environmental sculptor Andrew Goldsworthy. His sculptures were made so that, if the wind blew, they'd blow apart." The fact that "our lives are very temporary, fragile, they're not permanent" -- is a theme that's, well, timeless.
Like "Sonia Flew" and "American Tet," "Father Joy," too, is about family relationships and how delicate they are. "You blink and your daughter's grown up. You blink and you're gone," Herendeen says. "Father Joy" has an enduring power because it speaks to these family ties, and its message gives Herendeen hope, something sorely needed in these desperate times.
"Maybe people will pick up the phone when they get home," he says.