On Washington's politically impoverished stages, the war in Iraq has been getting virtually no attention. But 60 miles away, in a bucolic river town in the West Virginia panhandle, the blowback from hostilities in the Persian Gulf wafts through as if theatergoers were thinking of nothing else.
Credit Ed Herendeen, producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, with carving out a program this summer that feels as of-the-moment as a blogger on the Euphrates. At times, the convergence of fictional and global events is downright eerie, as when a son, enlisting in the Army against his mother's wishes in Melinda Lopez's "Sonia Flew," reminds her of the corrosive burden of living with the threat of terrorism. "You're waiting to hear which city it will be this time," he says -- with the TV chatter over the London bombings still ringing in the audience's ears.
It's refreshing, really, to come to this festival, held annually on the campus of Shepherd University, and escape from escapism, to find writers for the stage playing with enemy fire. In three home-front dramas, the festival's writers address Iraq directly and obliquely. The breakdown of a family steeped in military tradition ("American Tet"); the anguish of a woman whose Ivy League son wants desperately to be a soldier ("Sonia Flew"); the tumult in the heartland when the business of national security turns dirty ("The God of Hell"): These are the thematic concerns of a festival that brandishes a somber mirror for sobering times.
A fourth play, Sheri Wilner's "Father Joy," about a student's affair with her art professor, her battles with her hectoring mother, and a father who is supposedly fading, literally, like an old photograph, is the festival's sorest sore thumb, an impossibly treacly exercise. It oddly unbalances the festival. While the Iraq plays wrestle with their subject matter with varying degrees of success, you can at the very least admire these playwrights' efforts to break down an issue of immense complexity.
The Iraq plays range from the outrageous polemic of Sam Shepard's "God of Hell" to the intimate testimonial of Lopez's "Sonia Flew." These two pieces are, in fact, the festival's better offerings. The only intriguing aspect of the third, Lydia Stryk's "American Tet," is its title. Set on a U.S. military base, the work laboriously relates the growing disenchantment of the wife (Bonnie Black) of a retired soldier after her son goes off to Iraq and she befriends a Vietnamese waitress (the actress Ako).
With a stream of repetitive monologues and pedestrian recital of Vietnam parallels, this mishmash of an antiwar play, aridly directed by Tracy Bridgen, is as colorless as a sightseeing tour through a subdivision. Gird yourself especially for the astonishingly undramatic story of a soldier whose face has been blown off, as well as the soporific speeches by the retired military man (Michael Goodwin) about the wonders of gardening.
"Sonia Flew" also chronicles a mother's suffering, but with a surer sense of character and a much keener eye. Lopez, like Stryk, keeps us alert to parallels, in this instance between Sonia's son Zak (Michael Alperin) and Sonia herself (Black, again). The play is really two plays. The first is set in the Minnesota household of the Cuban-born Sonia and her Jewish husband, Daniel (Lee Sellars), after the attacks of Sept. 11. After intermission, the play travels back 40 years to the Havana of Sonia's youth. Over the objections of the zealous Sonia -- eager for service in Castro's youth corps -- her parents (Anderson Matthews and Veronica Cruz) decide to have her flown out of the country.
The second act is supposed to complete the psychological portrait of the grown-up Sonia, mortified by Zak's blind passion for service. While Herendeen's production provides some absorbing moments in both households, the connective thread feels flimsy. We don't need a Cuban back story to understand Sonia's revulsion and anger at the decision by Zak, fresh out of college, to enlist. The play never adequately grapples with the more interesting questions it raises: In a world of seemingly infinite danger, who should feel obliged to protect and defend us? And must that always be someone else's child?
The festival's strongest entry is the expert staging of Shepard's "The God of Hell," a short play that premiered off-Broadway last fall. This version, directed by Herendeen, is in virtually all ways superior; it's a much more skillful -- and far funnier -- elucidation of the contemporary terrors Shepard seeks to illuminate. The Manhattan production, with Randy Quaid, J. Smith-Cameron, Tim Roth and Frank Wood, felt shrill and disconnected from a central idea in the play, the ravaging by paranoid and torture-prone government forces of the independent spirit of America.
The play is about the excesses of Abu Ghraib, delivered right into an American living room. (Shepard wants nothing more than to dump governmental misadventure where we least desire it -- in our laps.) A smirking federal agent, in a superb turn here by Sellars, shows up at the Wisconsin dairy farm of Frank and Emma (Matthews and Carolyn Swift, in a wonderful pairing). The G-man knows they're hiding the person he's come to capture and torture, an excitable fellow named Haynes (the fine, tightly wound Jonathan Bustle) -- who, by the way, shoots sparks from his hands when touched.
For the play to work, you have to believe utterly in the bland malice of the agent, the blank gullibility of the farm couple and the blind fear of the guest. (In New York, the casting of Roth, a Brit, as the federal agent made zero sense.) All of these impressions are smoothly accomplished by Herendeen's cast. And so "The God of Hell" creepily achieves its desired effect. It makes us all squirming witnesses to the grotesque abuse of power.
Contemporary American Theatre Festival, works by Sam Shepard, Melinda Lopez, Sheri Wilner, Lydia Stryk. Through July 31 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-CATF or visit www.catf.org.