Contemporary American Theater Festival 2009

Michael Weller’s Fifty Words heads up the list of five plays (featuring two pianos!) presented at another fine festival in Shepherdstown. A smartly-written, 90-minute two-hander for Anthony Crane (playing the affable “goof-bag” husband Adam) and Joey Parsons (as Jan, his wound-too-tight wife), this sweet-bitter drama plays out in the course of one evening and night in their professionally-polished Brooklyn kitchen. A secret is revealed, and in the ensuing violence and passions, the tidy ménage becomes disheveled, serving as a metaphor for the state of their relationship. The play explores the contradictions in the things we want out of a marriage. A hat tip to Robert Klingelhoefer’s set design and dressing: we hope those rice bowls are on the table at CATF’s next yard sale.

Joey Parsons’ other part in the festival is in the one-woman Dear Sara Jane, by Victor Lodato, a fantasia on our culture’s way of violence and the dissociation of personality—with musical interludes. A Sara Jane, a fragile neurotic bride of a soldier fighting overseas, Parsons offers an intriguing master gesture: she pumps both fists up, ear-level, in what her character must imagine is a cheerleading kind of gesture, but it looks to us that she is warding off a blow. Sight lines in the Center for Contemporary Art and Theater, which the festival has used for its confessional, direct-address monologues like this one, are sometimes an issue.

Meanwhile, Anthony Crane takes on the role of Paul Zara in Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, a internet-age drama of hardball politics at the time of the Iowa caucuses. The show follows Stephen Bellamy (played by Eric Sheffer Stevens), young and idealistic press secretary to one of the candidates. Stevens, striding determinedly through the snow in a camel-hair overcoat, bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Murphy in Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. Stevens’ Bellamy is pinched between expediency and loyalty, in a milieu of double-dealing where “You can trust me” can be a laugh line. The production is propelled by David Remedios’ pulsing soundscapes that cover scene changes. asupporting work by Anderson Matthews as a genial dirty trickster of a campaign manager, and John Lescault in a cleverly-rendered cameo.

The History of Light, by Eisa Davis, follows two unhappy stories of mixed-race love, from the 1960s and the 1990s, while also tracking a young woman’s (Amelia Workman as Soph) rebonding with her estranged father (returning favorite David Emerson Toney). Perhaps there’s too much story going on here. Time periods and recollections intersect with dreamlike haze. The most effective scene comes when Workman appears as Vietnam-era shock comedian Dick Gregory, who reverse-heckles a black-white couple in his audience.

The festival is rounded out by Steven Dietz’s riff on conspiracy theorists and the women who love them, Yankee Tavern.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
  • Yankee Tavern, by Steven Dietz, directed by Liesl Tommy
  • Fifty Words, by Michael Weller, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Dear Sara Jane, by Victor Lodato, directed by Ed Herendeen (world premiere)
  • The History of Light, by Eisa Davis, directed by Liesl Tommy (world premiere)