Contemporary American Theater Festival 2012

The unexpected emergent themes of this year’s festival are power cuts and educating our children.

Gidion’s Knot deals with a precociously literary fifth-grade boy whose violent revenge fantasies, expressed in a brutal lyricism, end rather badly. Set designer Margaret McKowen transforms the white box CCA performance space into a colorful classroom for 11-year-olds, fitted with a crafts resource center and marvelously bedecked with posters of the presidents. Audience seating in movable broad-armed chairs creates a few sight line problems.

Joey Collins as Bobby enlivens Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep, an otherwise conventional story of sexual and emotional betrayal: most of the turns in the plot’s road are well marked with warning signs. Bobby is a ne’er-do-well carpenter in a small college town, someone who talks too loud (and yet Collins knows when to drop his volume to make a point) but finds a way to get ‘er done. His monologue about a long-suffering Iraq veteran’s wife, and about what Bobby will and won’t do, is especially striking.

The Exceptionals, by Bob Clyman, is the festival’s most thought-provoking piece, and its most confusing. Two mothers, Gwen (the guarded Rebecca Harris) and Allie (festival favorite Anne Marie Nest), have borne sons with sperm donated by men of exceptional genetics. Offered the opportunity to further advance their boys’ development by enrollment in an experimental school, they must both make sacrifices and jettison some cognitive baggage. I say thought-provoking, because the play raises questions like the degree to which we push our children’s intellectual development at the expense of their socialization. What profits a first-grader who can solve quadratic equations if he can no longer just play ball or hang out with his dad? As a adult, there is the hard nut of failing to live to one’s potential. Is walking away from an advanced degree with only a thesis defense to be completed ever a good idea?

I say confusing, because it’s difficult to understand whose story the play is telling us, complicated as it is with a subplot about illicit contact with a donor. Certainly it’s not that of the boys, Ethan and Michael, who exist for us only as shadows and distorted audio. Is it the mothers who make the journey? Is it Claire (stiff-backed Deidre Madigan), genetics researcher and Montessoriesque schoolmistress, who brackets the action with a pair of monologues about raising children as if they were hothouse flowers? Claire manipulates the women, driving them through an emotional maze that is mirrored by Lucina Stecconi’s set, all free-flowing corners and no doors–only starting points and goals.

Captors, based on the book Eichmann in My Hands by Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein, is an overwritten exercise, the sort of dreary historical reenactment that the festival is sometimes prone to (Miss Golden Dreams, Mary and Myra). Joey Collins (as Malkin) and Philip Goodwin (as Eichmann) are quite good—but read the book, instead.

Bess Wohl’s Barcelona is the strongest production of the five. It begins as a sexy comic romp set in the title city, a casual pickup between a woman sowing her bachelorette’s wild oats and a lonely, brooding Spaniard. It morphs into a genuine dialog between Old World and New about mourning and moving on, about taking responsibility for one’s actions. Anne Marie Nest is Irene, the tipsy real estate agent from Colorado, and Jason Manuel Olazàbal is the rock-steady Manuel. Nest’s monologue about slipping into her client’s lives, sitting on their conveyable sofas and holding imaginary tea parties, is delicious.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
  • Gidion’s Knot, by Johna Adams, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • The Exceptionals, by Bob Clyman, directed by Tracy Brigden
  • In a Forest, Dark and Deep, by Neil LaBute, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Captors, by Evan M. Weiner, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Barcelona, by Bess Wohl, directed by Charles Morey