Allusions to showbiz, and to literature, pepper the fare now at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the annual showcase in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for recently minted plays. On the festival’s stages, you can find a sequel to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and a tense, wisecracking tete-a-tete between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. You can even find a comedy about bumbling Islamist terrorists who treasure “Star Wars” trivia. It’s as if, faced with a society that sometimes seems to marginalize the art form, playwrights are striving to remind everyone that culture can endure.
Not that this year’s festival lineup appears particularly well-endowed with staying power. Of the five plays running in rotating repertory, only two are satisfying and dexterously crafted. But, as is inevitably the case at this Shepherdstown event, all the productions feature terrific acting and handsome direction and design. The production values add richness to the most memorable piece on the roster, the intense, suspenseful world premiere of “H2O” by Jane Martin.
Part bittersweet romance, part funny culture-war chronicle, part wrenching portrait of depression and survival, “H2O” does suffer from a schematic setup: Having found sudden success as an action-movie star, the self-destructive, loose-living Jake (Alex Podulke) tries to give his life meaning by tackling the role of Hamlet. After he decides that a devout Christian actress named Deborah (Diane Mair) is right to play his Ophelia, the two performers become hesitant friends.
Deborah’s worldview offers Jake the kind of order and certainty he needs. She even sees acting as a divinely inspired calling — a nice alternative to the meaningless con game he believes it to be. But he can’t will himself into faith, and as he and Deborah grow closer, the outlook for their well-being, and for their “Hamlet,” looks increasingly grim.
In the early scenes, it’s hard to see “H2O” as more than a tug-of-war between conveniently opposed belief systems. But Podulke’s Jake is so rivetingly moody, and Mair’s Deborah is by turns so fervent and likably wry, that you can’t help succumbing to the story, which unfurls on David M. Barber’s atmospheric, tiled set. Jon Jory’s fluid direction, which has scene, costume and makeup changes happening in full view of the audience, speeds the pace and complements the play’s meta-theatrical motifs.
With its two-person cast and valentine-to-thespians plotline, “H2O” could go on to stagings around the country. There may also be demand for “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” the highly watchable world premiere written and directed by Mark St. Germain (known for the popular “Freud’s Last Session,” about Freud and C.S. Lewis). Set in a Hollywood apartment enclave in 1937, and amply padded with historical name-dropping (breezy references to Dorothy Parker, Bill Faulkner, Archie MacLeish and more), the play imagines a turbulent conversation between the friendly-yet-competitive Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who revive old grievances; brood about fame, mortality and the seductive temptations of the movie industry; and learn alarming truths about each other’s notions of integrity and strength.
On a genteelly faded Spanish-revival-deco set (also designed by Barber), Joey Collins’s arch Fitzgerald swans around engagingly in a smoking jacket, while Rod Brogan’s suitably macho Hemingway jeers and glowers, gripping a glass of booze. In one moment of simmering conflict, Hemingway takes a swing at his rival, and Fitzgerald blocks the blow with a copy of “Gone With the Wind.” Score: Margaret Mitchell’s mammoth tome: 1; Hemingway: 0. (Aaron Anderson is fight director.)
Hollywood also turns up as a theme in Sam Shepard’s “Heartless,” directed by Ed Herendeen, the festival’s producing director. A delphic rumination on interpersonal connection, loyalty and the (im)possibility of new beginnings, the play tells of a Cervantes professor (Michael Cullen) who visits a Los Angeles house full of needy women — at least one of whom may be a hallucination. Mildly mythic events and carping conversations ensue. Shepard has supplied one entertaining character: the battle-ax matriarch Mable (a delightful Kathleen Butler), who, in a pointed monologue, recalls climbing perilously high in a tree to catch a glimpse of James Dean. (In a substitute-casting triumph straight out of “42nd Street,” on opening night Margot White did a dazzling job as Mable’s daughter Sally, a role she had inherited less than 48 hours before. The original actress, Robyn Cohen, who had been sidelined by a last-minute crisis, is expected to resume the role. )
Reverence for movies is a stickier matter for the characters in “Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them,” by Jon Kern, a staff writer for “The Simpsons.” In the age-old tradition of poking fun at what frightens us, Kern conjures up a Brooklyn cell of incompetent and slightly endearing jihadists, who juggle mass-murder logistics with the mundane realities of modern life, like buying toilet paper. Opening with an image of “Star Wars” fan Rahim (Omar Maskati) squirming as he’s fitted for an underwear bomb, the play can be daringly hilarious, especially when actress Mahira Kakkar is channeling her fanatical, iPod-dependent character, Yalda. (Herendeen directs.) But Kern doesn’t ratchet up the zaniness as steadily as he should, and the play ultimately feels overlong.
The contemporary war on terror is the subtext of Liz Duffy Adams’s “Crucible” riff, “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World,” directed by Kent Nicholson. Ten years after helping to spark the Salem witch trials, a wiser Abigail Williams (Susannah Hoffman) seeks out her childhood accomplice, Mercy Lewis (Cassie Beck), hoping to gain insight into the past. But Mercy still knows how to fan hysteria, and — irony alert! — Abigail finds herself fighting for her life in the company of a mysterious, visionary stranger (Gerardo Rodriguez).
After posing its initial questions in an over-obvious manner (“For the love of God, Mercy, what happened?” Abigail demands, speaking of the witch trials), this world premiere devotes most of Act II to a meandering, soul-baring chat between Abigail and the stranger, before wrapping up the narrative in a ridiculous surge of melodrama.
The themes of paranoia and groupthink in “Discourse” have added topical resonance, given the soul-searching recently prompted by Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. Still, the most riveting moment in “Discourse” explores theater, not society: In a funny but eerie sequence, Mercy’s servant Rebekkah (the fine Becky Byers) entertains a tavern full of people by attempting to relate the story of “Macbeth.” She garbles the tale, but the unnerving ideas about witches and guilt come through clearly, and her audience is — pun intended — spellbound. We don’t always get theater exactly right, but our fascination with it is always fascinating.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through July 28 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283
or visit www.catf.org.