Could radical imagination improve a flawed world? Would a revamped world just be flawed in different ways? It seems apt that this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, with its opening weekend following a slew of violence in the United States and abroad, is spotlighting playwrights who are dreaming up alternatives to the status quo.
A sci-fi parable about slavery. A drama about 19th-century African Americans planning new societies in Liberia. Two plays that rewrite classic dramas. These are among the new and newish works running in repertory at the Shepherdstown, W.Va., festival. Although this year’s scripts vary in quality, at least two clearly have a bright future on the national theater scene. As is typical of this annual showcase, moreover, the acting is top-notch and the design handsome.
Perhaps the most daring work is “The Wedding Gift,” Chisa Hutchinson’s semi-comic tale of a futuristic slave-owning society. Much of the dialogue is not in English, but in a language that Hutchinson invented. The strategy accentuates the story’s drama: Audiences find themselves in the same situation as Doug (Jason Babinsky), an English speaker who suddenly finds himself in chains in an unfamiliar land, where the ceremonies are as unsettling as the high-tech plumbing system.
In director May Adrales’s often-funny world-premiere production, the non-English dialogue is mostly comprehensible, thanks partly to the expressiveness of the actors, who include Margaret Ivey as Doug’s master. Meanwhile, Peggy McKowen’s costumes are gleefully exotic (think Versailles-meets-Kingdom-of-Dorne).
On a less positive note, the play’s plotting is simplistic — no doubt necessarily so, given the need for clarity. Additionally, a climactic big-reveal moment too closely echoes a certain classic movie. Still, “Wedding Gift” testifies to the audacity and range of Hutchinson, whose naturalistic “Dead and Breathing” ran at CATF in 2014.
Ronan Noone achieves his own feat of boldness with “The Second Girl,” this year’s most polished work. Directed here by CATF producing director Ed Herendeen, this play presumes to complement a masterpiece: Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Set on the same day in August 1912, in the Tyrone family’s summer home, but in the kitchen, not the living room, Noone’s drama depicts the servants who are alluded to, or briefly appear, in O’Neill’s play: the cook Bridget (Jessica Wortham), chauffeur Smythe (Ted Koch) and “second girl” Cathleen (Cathryn Wake). While perfectly dovetailing with “Long Day,” “Second Girl” gives its servant characters stories that are rich, moving and urgent. This play will doubtless be seen across the country.
Allison Gregory’s “Not Medea,” directed by Courtney Sale, is another satisfying riff on the canon. Produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, “Not Medea” boasts an electric central performance by Joey Parsons as a frazzled mother with a tragedy in her past. The Woman (as she is called) first seems to be a boorish theatergoer. Then, with much shattering of the fourth wall, she transforms into Euripides’ antiheroine. Intense but often funny, “Not Medea” is a resonant meditation on guilt, alienation, resilience and double standards for men and women.
Feminist themes also emerge in “20th Century Blues,” Susan Miller’s strenuously touching world premiere about four female friends who meet yearly over decades. The script’s bantering conversations methodically touch on a range of hot-button issues — sexism, looksism, ageism, breast cancer, LGBT concerns, motherhood, even the woes of the newspaper industry — in a way that seems calculated.
But some audiences appreciate having their heartstrings tugged and their familiar truths tidily packaged. For this reason, and because of the four substantive roles for actresses — here, Betsy Aidem, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Kathryn Grody and Alexandra Neil, directed by Herendeen — “20th Century Blues” has a promising future.
The biggest disappointment of the festival is Christina Anderson’s “Pen/man/ship,” about Charles, a land surveyor (Brian D. Coates); Ruby, a refugee from American racism (Ivey); and others who are sailing to Liberia in 1896. With sequences that consist of voiced diary entries, and with a lurching offstage main conflict that filters in via talky scenes, this ambitious shipboard tale runs surprisingly low on drama.
To make matters worse, director Lucie Tiberghien’s exasperatingly static and pause-riddled production features a set flooded in water. The conceit visually articulates a metaphor: Despite conviction and courage, the play’s characters are foundering for lack of empathy. Unfortunately, perhaps because the wading actors are at risk of slipping, the scenes contain too little movement. (Although a wonderful ship sail does shift above the set, designed by Kris Stone.)
Admittedly, touching on the topics of race and justice, “Pen/man/ship” has topical resonance. “Let there be darkness in the light,” Ruby proclaims at one point. “For the dark holds our fears, our ignorance. . . . If darkness stands in plain sight, we can then dismantle its power.”