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New plays about race and climate change bloom in West Virginia’s wilds

The Contemporary American Theater Festival is back on this summer, with a marathon of six world and regional premieres

Jefferson A. Russell and Lenique Vincent in “The House of the Negro Insane” at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. (Seth Freeman)
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SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Theater festivals like the one in this funky Appalachian college town were in the binge-watching game long before Netflix had streamed a single title. It’s been the mission of the Contemporary American Theater Festival since 1991: offering a multi-production fix to playgoers who crave theater served hot from the creative kitchen.

Over the years, the summer menu has expanded — from two new plays to four to the current six — a smorgasbord that over as little as two days compels you to dash from one playhouse to another on the campus of Shepherd University, the festival’s home. Although some offerings are always better than others, the truest test of a theater lover’s devotion is ordering up the full six courses. The binge, in other words, is all.

I binged on the opening weekend, July 8-10, the first professional live theater in Shepherdstown in three summers. (The offerings run through July.) It was a reassuringly familiar return to a festival — filled with the usual surprises and disappointments — that has long favored plays that provocatively probe the fissures in American politics and culture.

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With the continuation of ambitious festivals such as Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in doubt, the Contemporary American Theater Festival becomes even more precious. Its emphasis on topics driving wedges in American life makes it an especially compelling endeavor. Racism and the pain and suffering it engenders undergird several works on this year’s roster, including the most accomplished: Terence Anthony’s “The House of the Negro Insane,” set in 1935 in an Oklahoma “hospital” for Black people detained on scurrilous grounds, and Kevin Artigue’s “Sheepdog,” the account of the shooting of an unarmed Black man in Cleveland, by a White police officer romantically involved with a Black officer.

The others — all world premieres — latch onto thorny issues with varying degrees of success. Even if some come across as somewhat embryonic, it’s instructive to collate what weighs heavy on the minds of theater writers. Caridad Svich’s “Ushuaia Blue,” for instance, plants two American researchers on the edge of Antarctica and the front lines of global climate change; “Babel,” by Jacqueline Goldfinger, sends us into the future, to an American society of dwindling resources and state-mandated eugenics. Victor Lesniewski posits in “The Fifth Domain” a national crisis triggered by lax governmental cybersecurity. And in “Whitelisted,” Chisa Hutchinson turns a Black ghost loose on the brownstone of a gentrifying White arriviste.

You walk into each of the festival’s three spaces with the highest of hopes, and sometimes, you leave with that sensation rewarded. The slate of plays was originally selected for the summer of 2020 by the festival’s founder, Ed Herendeen, who retired earlier this year and was succeeded as producing artistic director by his longtime associate, Peggy McKowen. The fact that the themes hold up so potently after two years of pandemic shutdowns speaks to the unfortunate resilience of these thorny subjects.

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The work that left the strongest impression was the one that most vividly invokes a shameful American past. In “The House of the Negro Insane,” astutely directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, a stoic mountain of an inmate, played to perfection by Jefferson A. Russell, works as coffin maker in an asylum for Black people (based on an actual mental hospital in Taft, Okla.). In the tight confines of a black-box space, set designer Claire Deliso conjures the crude workshop in which Russell’s Attius is insulted, bullied and oddly courted by an alcoholic White overseer, embodied with persuasive creepiness by Christopher Halladay.

The presence of August Wilson, author of period plays such as “The Piano Lesson,” can be felt in the rhythms of Anthony’s story. (It happens that before his death in 2005, Wilson contemplated his own play about coffin makers.) That sense is confirmed in the rich portraits of Attius and the other inmates — Effie and Madeline, portrayed by the excellent CG and Lenique Vincent — who have been committed to this cruel institution for anything but their own good. As a plot unfolds around the choice confronting Attius — opening up his battered heart and aiding a child in dire straits — Anthony deftly explores the powerful emotionality behind the character’s mask of resigned misery. (We also suspect all along that by play’s end, that completed coffin onstage will not go unfilled.)

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“Sheepdog” fast-forwards us to troubled American current events, as an interracial love affair unravels between Cleveland police officers (the terrific Sarah Ellen Stephens and Doug Harris). Harris’s Ryan is gutted by his own actions, as a White police officer who has fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop. But sympathy eludes his romantic partner, Stephens’s Amina, after she discovers that the evidence doesn’t match Ryan’s version of the incident.

Artigue, the playwright, plausibly invokes the blue wall that at first discourages Amina from doubting Ryan’s account. Stephens, in director Melissa Crespo’s taut staging, is thoroughly convincing as the drama’s moral linchpin, eventually seeing that Ryan’s racism is an unendurable reflex. At 90 minutes, the play proves an absorbing sit.

Ninety minutes is also what Lesniewski allots for “The Fifth Domain,” but it’s just not enough time to execute the dramatist’s intricate scenario. The play is a cyberspace thriller with some nifty twists, all of which tumble out at the festival’s Frank Center, its largest theater, in expositional shorthand; it plays as if it’s a treatment for a six-part series on Hulu. Troy (Dylan Kammerer) is a renegade former IT expert for the National Security Agency, who aims to expose the infiltration holes in the nation’s computer networks.

Brevity is often, but not always, a virtue. A play needs to find the proper amount of breathing room. A cybergeek (Alexandra Palting), an NSA operative (Kathryn Tkel) and a shadowy figure who appears on park benches (Aby Moongamackel) all figure in the proceedings. But by the time they (with director Kareem Fahmy’s guidance) plant their feet in the story, we’re hopping on to the next narrative pivot. The vibrant visual graphics by Max Wallace are helpful, and the actors seem well-acquainted with a story meant to keep us guessing. Still, all the technical language and a play-ending device that’s inadequately worked out mean that a lot more authorial elucidation is in order.

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“Babel” and “Whitelisted” feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Neither is in the kind of shape to fully hold an audience — though Carlo Alban is entertaining as an inordinately patient installer of security systems in the uneven “Whitelisted.” He agrees for some reason to stay overnight on the sofa of Rebecca (Kate MacCluggage), an unpleasant designer of high-end dollhouses who evinces not an ounce of sympathy for the gentrifying community in Brooklyn she’s bought into. If anyone deserves to be tormented by vengeful spirits, it seems, she does.

Svich, the author of “Ushuaia Blue,” has a bit more success, courtesy of the lyricism in which she envelops her tale of the crisis befalling a scientist, Jordan (John Keabler), and videographer, Sara (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), on a trip to Antarctica. The ravages of climate change will doubtless be a topic other dramatists are going to grapple with in the coming years. Here, Svich, with the aid of director Jessi D. Hill, gives us a taste of the physical toll and the clash of cultural perspectives that environmental upheaval can engender.

On Jesse Dreikosen’s set in the Marinoff Theater, bedecked with glowing glaciers and furniture embedded in ice, Sara navigates the frozen landscape to record interviews with an Indigenous resident (Amelia Rico) of an island off the southernmost coast of Argentina. Rico’s Pepa is not as alarmed as the Americans are about the ecological havoc to come. Maybe, she says, humankind will simply disappear and the polar region will be covered in forests. It’s a contrarian longer view of the cycle of life that Svich is illuminating — the sort that theater can investigate, as it ponders a hazardous future not just practically, but also in poetically philosophical terms.

Contemporary American Theater Festival Through July 31 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.