Blood is thicker than water — but how does it stack up against the power of thought? That question is getting a satisfying theatrical workout at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the annual showcase for recently minted plays in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Suitably enough, given that rhetoric about “families” — family values, middle-class families’ tax burdens, and more — always flies thick and fast in an election season, the smart, generally engrossing repertoire on view at the 2012 festival includes several plays that grapple with the notion of kinship. The most resonant works in the lineup, Johnna Adams’s “Gidion’s Knot” and Bob Clyman’s “The Exceptionals,” are particularly eloquent studies of people caught between the competing demands of reason, morality and family.
One of two world premieres on the festival roster, the harrowing “Gidion’s Knot” imagines a confrontation in a fifth-grade classroom. In the immersive production staged by CATF Producing Director Ed Herendeen, the audience sits at desks beneath glaring fluorescent lamps. Maps, flags and pictures of U.S. presidents plaster the walls, and construction paper, glue and crayons litter a nearby countertop. (Margaret McKowen designed the set.)
This is territory ordinarily ruled by a straitlaced teacher named Heather (the superbly tense Joey Parsons). But a new power dynamic sets in when Heather meets with Corryn (the impressively volcanic Robin Walsh) after a disciplinary incident involving Corryn’s son. As terse civilities yield to venomous debate, the play ponders high-stakes issues: What is the purpose of art? Of education? Does the need to give children a safe, nurturing environment outweigh the importance of free speech? What do we owe to creatures we love? Boldly and skillfully, Adams embeds these and other questions in a narrative that is as elegant as it is chilling. Theatergoers may want to avoid seeing the show right before a meal.
The mood is lighter in “The Exceptionals,” directed by Tracy Brigden. (The play premiered at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in Lowell, Mass., in 2011.) Set in the offices of a business that is part scientific research center, part fertility clinic — Luciana Stecconi designed the aptly antiseptic chrome-and-white-fabric set — Clyman’s drama centers on two women who have conceived children with the help of sperm from an elite set of donors. When the research center proposes to educate the kids, who are extraordinarily gifted, at an exclusive school, mothers Allie (Anne Marie Nest) and Gwen (Rebecca Harris) must choose between values — a happy home, a strong marriage, a healthy society, basic fairness — that may not be compatible.
In a monologue, a research center executive named Claire (Deirdre Madigan, radiating sinister poise) foresees the result of the social-engineering project Allie and Gwen have joined: Society will divide into two groups, the genetic “haves” and the genetic “have-nots,” that will increasingly diverge. “Evolution travels in only one direction,” Claire notes matter-of-factly. “I would like nothing better than to stand here and tell you there’s a giant tent stretching all the way across the sky, big enough to cover everyone, but that just wouldn’t be honest.” This disturbing vision notwithstanding, “The Exceptionals” abounds in comic moments, thanks to the deadpan quips Clyman has tucked into his script. (“There is nothing you wouldn’t do for your child,” Claire says to Allie. “It’s why you’re here instead of on eBay, trying to find the last batch of ‘average’ semen before it’s thrown out.”) The interactions between Nest’s obstreperous and flaky Allie — she keeps her cellphone tucked down the front of her blouse — and Harris’s wearily competitive Gwen can also be very funny.
While “Gidion’s Knot” and “The Exceptionals” deal with the parent-child bond, Neil LaBute’s “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” concerns two adult siblings. Betty (Johanna Day) is a university dean who has a hard time relating to her less-educated brother, Bobby (Joey Collins). When she asks Bobby to help her clean out her isolated cabin in the woods, the two can’t help dredging up old grudges — a process that threatens to expose a welter of dangerous new secrets. A simmering suspense drama that debuted in London in 2011, “In a Forest” feels too slack in places, and in the CATF version, directed by Herendeen, Day’s Betty doesn’t always ring psychologically true. But the production has a major asset in Collins: His smirking Bobby bops around designer David M. Barber’s disheveled-cabin set with a menacing manic energy, resentment clinging to him like an ill-fitting halo.
Collins is also the best thing about Evan M. Wiener’s “Captors,” which takes inspiration from Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein’s nonfiction book “Eichmann in My Hands” and relates how Israeli agents captured the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. (The drama premiered at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.) Collins brings a grim, keyed-up whimsy to the role of Malkin, charged with guarding the aging Eichmann (frequent D.C. actor Philip Goodwin), with whom he builds a wary rapport. It’s a fascinating historical episode, and on Barber’s suitably ominous set (three nooses; a gray wall), director Herendeen creates a fabulous cinematic opening, with car headlights beaming from the darkness. But ultimately the ideas “Captors” emphasizes — that a bond of sympathy can build between a guard and a prisoner; that the worst criminal has a human side — are overfamiliar, and a frame tale that draws parallels between Eichmann and the older, memoir-writing Malkin — two men hungering for their long-suppressed stories to be heard — feels heavy-handed.
Playwright Bess Wohl recalls more recent geopolitical turmoil in “Barcelona,” about a Spaniard and an American wrestling with prejudice, family legacies and the memory of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The plotting in this funny-but-serious world premiere is a tad implausible, but under the direction of Charles Morey the piece is a nice vehicle for its two actors. Jason Manuel Olazabal sounds the right wry and brooding notes as Manuel, who picks up Irene, a gabby American, at a Barcelona bar. Nest’s Irene is a blaze of insular, gum-chewing ditsiness — but the character deepens as the play progresses.
“I’m pioneer stock,” she proudly tells Manuel, referring to her ancestors who settled in Utah. Before it’s too late, this airhead bachelorette discovers a courage those long-gone family members might be proud of.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through July 29 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283 or visit www.catf.org.