Contemporary American Theater Festival 2008: 1

Neil LaBute breaks his pattern of writing for younger characters with Wrecks, a monologue for a businessman of late middle age, executed with skill by Kurt Zischke. We the audience are seated in the white box performance space of Shepherd University’s new Center for Contemporary Arts, which has been outfitted as a mortuary chapel, complete with (uncomfortable) sofas and armchairs for us. Edward Carr (Zischke) has stepped away from the line of mourners who have come to express their good wishes for the passing of Carr’s wife Mary Josephine. As he speaks to us, he reveals private thoughts that he will not, cannot express in public—a LaBute hallmark. LaBute’s final plot twist is less effective than his writing for Edward when he rages against the capricious forces of disease and death and our powerlessness against them.

The key element missing from Greg Kotis’s one-act Pig Farm is a musical score. Kotis, who collaborated with Mark Hollman on the satirical economics morality play Urinetown, the Musical, is here working solo in a close-by field. Tom and Tina run a pig farm along with their hired hand Tim. Times being hard, the farm is operating at overcapacity and Tom has resorted to extramural means to dispose of the porcine effluent. Trouble is, Teddy (Anderson Matthews, who can bluster and menace at the same time), a pistol-packing government inspector with a taste for the romantic agrarian life, has his own plans for Tom’s setup. What begins as kitchen sink drama slides into Guignolesque mayhem, with characters that won’t die (they keep popping up to sing reprises to their death arias) and a quantity of stage blood worthy of Martin McDonagh. This is a play that draws its comedy from our sardonic “yeah, right” reaction to a character’s claim that the Environmental Protection Agency is up to the task of guarding us against pollution by “fecal sludge.”

More representational is Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond, a lovely multithreaded piece that takes place at the Martha’s Vineyard summer house of the LeVays, an upper middle-class African-American family. Diamond explores themes of race, class, and most importantly, the expectations that a family places on its children to succeed—and in turn, that children place on their parents for recognition. Oldest son Flip has brought his girlfriend, who is white, home to meet the family, but he may have had an easier time of it than youngest son Kent, who has also brought his significant other to meet the folks. Multiply degreed Kent is still struggling to find his vocation, while his fiancée Taylor (the flexible Tijuana T. Ricks) brings more baggage to the home than just what will fit in the trunk. In a commonplace trope, Kent has an autobiographical novel that he is preparing for publication, and he needs to present the work to his family—but fortunately the play doesn’t bog down over this point. The place is presided over by the amiable but emotionally distant Dr. Joseph LeVay (the polished David Emerson Toney), a neurosurgeon; but the show-stealer is Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Cheryl, daughter of the housekeeper who has unfinished business with the LeVays.

The play is built from many short (sometimes simultaneous) scenes that take place in three separate rooms of the summer house. What’s most impressive technically is how director Liesl Tommy has worked with her lighting designer Colin K. Bills and the cast to isolate a character at the end of a scene with light, to allow the character to silently reflect on the scene that has just taken place, while the next scene is being prepared elsewhere. All this activity is taking place in the friendly confines of the Studio Theater’s black box. Indeed, at one point, as far as I can tell, a series of cues was built to follow a character’s movement through the house without movable lighting instruments.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
  • Wrecks, by Neil LaBute, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Pig Farm, by Greg Kotis, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Stick Fly, by Lydia R. Diamond, directed by Liesl Tommy