Themes of this year’s selections include black-white race relations, death and dying, acceptance of the other, hard choices, gender issues—and indoor plumbing.
Chisa Hutchinson’s waspish comedy Dead and Beathing pits Carolyn (the fearless Lizan Mitchell), a wealthy woman weakened by a long-term illness and in hospice status, against her caregiver Veronika, an equally tart-tongued woman (the resourceful, pitch-perfect N. L. Graham). Carolyn, who has made no friends and many enemies in her life, needs Veronika’s assistance to accomplish a single task, one that might redeem both of their lives. Veronika, a ardently Christian woman of hidden talents (she prepares “the tastiest fucking omelette” with Gruyère and herbs for Carolyn), carries a secret that threatens to undermine their shared project. The setup is a bit perfunctory—Carolyn makes a too-hasty decision to get the action of the play moving and to keep it within the 90 minutes of real-time running. However, the moral dilemma that Veronika faces, one of money and life, is well-drawn, and good fodder for drive-home discussions with a theater companion.
One Night, a physically and emotionally violent drama by Charles Fuller, addresses the strains endured by soldiers fighting in the 21st century, chief among them the gnarly issue of gender integration within combat units. It’s told largely in a tangle of paranoid hallucinatory flashbacks, and the effect is appropriately disorienting, if perhaps a bit distancing. The here-and-now of the play is a hot-sheets motel somewhere on the West Coast where two Iraq war veterans on the run, Alicia (Kaliswa Brewster) and Horace (Jason Babinsky), seek shelter for the titular one night. Offstage voices (it’s the sort of cheap place with paper-thin partitions), alas, are only audible when it’s convenient to provide an impetus to the story. And a highway patrolman who turns out also to be a vet is too pat. But Fuller’s command of military lingo (his A Soldier’s Play is from 1982) is convincing, and his outrage is clear.
Some of the flashiest acting comes from Alex Podulke as Julian in Thomas Gibbons’ chamber drama Uncanny Valley, a science fiction drama of bioethics and life extension. Julian is a androidish construction being put together, part by part, by offstage engineers and being trained (cognitively, kinetically, and emotionally) by Claire (the quietly strong Barbara Kingsley). It turns out that Julian is being assembled for a mission, one for which Claire’s programming is only a substrate. Once Julian begins to execute that mission, the action of the play bogs down a bit, as these two skillful actors are left to tell us what transpires offstage. However, the challenges that Claire faces in her backstory, cognitive excursions on the part of her family members, throw some discussion-worthy highlights on to Julian’s narrative.
In a supporting interview, Gibbons says,
One of the things that’s interesting about [2001: A Space Odyssey] is the way that Hal, the computer, is more human than the astronauts. He acts almost irrationally. Throughout the movie, the human beings show very little emotion. They’re all corporate space travelers. Hal, even though he is just a lens and a red light, is the one that is more human.
The drama The Ashes under Gait City, by Christina Anderson, is sparked by the history of Oregon’s pre-Civil War exclusion laws; little discussed today and not repealed until 1926, the legislation was surprisingly effective at suppressing the population of African Americans. In 1860, there were but 128 among a total population of 52,645.
The play follows the charismatic Simone the Believer (Daphne Gaines), who uses social media to organize a tiny group of followers. Their mission: to disrupt the complacence of fictitious Gait City, Oregon and to make a home for the displaced and ignored. Gaines is commanding onstage, but she is even more effective in video projection: the twinkle in her eyes obscures the controlling, paranoid soul that is just discernible there. Willie E. Carpenter is charming as a socially inept mailman who joins the group and (quite conveniently) has mad hacking skills. The play’s violent climax doesn’t unfold the way we might expect, but it provides one cautionary example of how a cult can form. The revolution will not be televised, but it will certainly be YouTubed.
The weekend’s high point is Bruce Graham’s North of the Boulevard, an entertaining black comedy set (in this production) in a small city somewhere in the crotch of Pennsylvania. David M. Barber’s richly detailed, grunge-soaked set gives us Trip’s Auto, a neighborhood garage losing out to urban blight and chain competition from Pep Boys. There’s a grimy tool cabinet, practical lighted advertising signs, an Obama poster hiding a huge crack in the wall, and a blown-out lawn chair patched with a moving blanket.
What drives the play are the get-rich-and-get-out dreams of the proprietor Trip (the brooding, explosive Brit Whittle) and his friends Larry (Jason Babinsky again) and Bear (Jamil A. C. Mangan), and so it reminds us of A Raisin in the Sun. That is, until the three’s plans (which involve a theft of McDonald’s scratch-off game pieces and grisly insurance fraud) start to unravel à la American Buffalo. Mangan’s Bear, an African American security guard with a lot of time for self-education, a rich basso voice, and John McCain’s politics, engages in some George Jefferson-Archie Bunker sparring with the unloved Zee (Michael Goodwin, nevertheless endearing despite all the nasty stuff his character’s been up to).
Babinsky is astonishing as Larry, a stammering schlub of a guy who’s lost his house and is working as an orderly in a nursing home (skills that provide valuable to him in the end). Verbally abused by his crummy father Zee, burdened with a special-needs son, and naive enough to think that a petition drive will accomplish change in this corrupt burg, Larry has a comic Kenny McCormick moment where he seems to swallow the collar of his parka to tamp down his revulsion. When he’s particularly stressed, he judiciously squeaks into falsetto—Babinksy could give a master class on this accent note. With all that Larry’s endured, his first act “so long, Dad” (not exactly his words) aria is well-deserved.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- The Ashes under Gait City, by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
- One Night, by Charles Fuller, directed by Ed Herendeen
- Uncanny Valley, by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Tom Dugdale
- North of the Boulevard, by Bruce Graham, directed by Ed Herendeen
- Dead and Breathing, by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by Kristin Horton
Gibbons’ play was inspired in part by the LifeNaut Project, whose Bruce Duncan spoke at the festival. It’s an intriguing, perhaps disturbing proposal. The flattening of personality that our current limited technology entails is distressing, but no doubt, at one time, the same was said of tintypes and wax cylinders.