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Shepherdstown theater festival features world premieres and top notch acting

Erika Rolfsrud in Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” at the 2018 Contemporary American Theater Festival. (Seth Freeman)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival speak fervently about the power of memory. Whether it’s because of Proustian cookie consumption or because divisive times and extreme weather inspire soul-searching about the past, the six works currently on view at this town’s nationally known new-play showcase comment on memory’s ability to dominate and disrupt the present.

The productions have other traits also worthy of note: Five of the six are world premieres. Several of the scripts are terrific. And, as is typical at this festival, the acting and production values are top-notch.

The lineup’s chief crowd-pleaser is the one that isn’t a world premiere: Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake.” The tale of a vivacious North Carolina bakery owner, Della (Erika Rolfsrud), who agonizes when lesbian couple Jen and Macy (Kelly Gibson and Monet) ask her to whip up a tiered confection for their wedding, the play feels especially timely because of the recent Supreme Court ruling on Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission . But the play also illuminates its characters’ relationships and conflicted feelings in scenes that are deeply affecting. (In one key sequence, Jen wrestles with the memory of her own conservative upbringing, nearly derailing the wedding.) Directed by Courtney Sale, “The Cake” is delectably funny. When her husband (Lee Sellars) says that same-sex marriage is “just not natural,” Della shoots back, “Well, neither is confectioners’ sugar!” (Therese Bruck’s costumes add to the zest.)

Equally absorbing, but more somber, is “The House on the Hill,” Amy E. Witting’s heartbreaking story about loss and friendship. CATF founding producing director Ed Herendeen’s seamless production charts the relationship between Alexandra (Joey Parsons) and Frankie (Jessica Savage), once-inseparable cousins estranged by a cataclysmic event. Regular flashbacks feature younger versions of the duo (Sam Morales and Ruby Rakos) coping with high school prom and other mundanities. In a hugely moving device, the flashbacks sometimes feature a grown-up cousin interacting with the teenage version of her BFF — a juxtaposition that underscores the past’s grip on the characters’ present. (Scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen conjures the house.)

Memory is a treacherous force in “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man,” D.W. Gregory’s suspenseful and carefully wrought what-if, set in the Soviet Union during, and just after, Stalin’s rule. The naive Alexei (David McElwee) has total recall — a gift that turns dangerous when he can’t forget the honor once accorded to the now-disgraced thinker Bukharin. As the narrative probes Alexei’s connection to a psychologist (Parsons) and a mysterious bureaucrat (Sellars), the play ponders the difference between political lies and defensive personal misremembering. Gaining power from David M. Barber’s spooky constructivist and surrealistically flavored set, “Memoirs” resonates in a time when facts fall victim to partisan passions. (The play shares concerns with George Orwell’s “1984,” a classic that has surged in popularity in recent years.) But the success of the play, also directed by Herendeen, ultimately relies on the vivid rendering of Alexei, whose idiosyncrasies also include synesthesia. (The squeak of muddy boots is “the flavor of apricots,” he declares at one point.)

Memory registers as light and sound (red glow, the clanking of chains) in “Berta, Berta,” a wisp of bittersweet 1920s Mississippi romance that playwright Angelica Chéri has spun from the Parchman Prison work song of the same title. As directed by Reginald L. Douglas, the conversation between the wary Berta (Bianca LaVerne Jones) and her suitor, Leroy (Jason Bowen), barrels along, now joyous, now prickly with resentment. The emotional dynamic is vibrant, and the story touches thoughtfully on issues of social injustice. Still, the talk sometimes feels repetitive, and the narrative could use an additional twist. (John Ambrosone designed the lighting, and David Remedios, the sound. Luciana Stecconi designed the detailed rural-cabin set.)

Recollection of better times further burdens the characters in C.A. Johnson’s “Thirst,” set in a post-apocalyptic world where resource scarcity has spiked racial tensions. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, “Thirst” boasts action-movie trappings (Aaron Anderson is fight director), but its focus is too diffuse. One longs to get closer to characters such as the feisty survivor Samira (Monet) or her ex, the water-hoarding despot Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George).

The festival’s least-interesting offering is “A Late Morning (in America) With Ronald Reagan,” a wan portrait of the reminiscing 40th president, written by Michael Weller (“Moonchildren,” etc.) and directed by Sam Weisman. Deliberately cast cross-generationally, John Keabler does a decent job suggesting the octogenarian Great Communicator’s intonations and mannerisms, but playwright Weller never makes the material feel urgent. The force that is memory deserves better.

Contemporary American Theater Festival Through July 29 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. 304-876-3473 or 800-999-2283.