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What To See At The Contemporary American Theater Festival

Seth Freeman

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has returned from the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with five reviews in hand. She brings us this review. 

The Rousuck Review: The Contemporary American Theater Festival

While headlines continue to report malfeasance at the Veterans Affairs Department, playwright Charles Fuller’s up-to-the-minute play, “One Night,” makes a powerful case onstage at the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Fuller’s drama is one of five cutting-edge plays in this 24th annual new-play festival in Shepherdstown, WV, just across the state line, about 30 minutes from Frederick. The subjects of this year’s plays vary from assisted suicide to artificial intelligence. But the theme of justice crops up in all five.

Nowhere is it more evident, however, than in Fuller’s “One Night.” Fuller won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for “A Soldier’s Story,” and he also focuses on the military here. Alicia and Horace, two Iraq War vets, check into a squalid motel after fire destroys the homeless shelter where they’ve been living.

Alicia, a sergeant, was gang-raped by fellow soldiers in Iraq and suffers from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The army has been giving her the run-around ever since she reported the rape and wound up discharged. 

Benefits, housing – and most of all – legal recourse all seem non-existent. 

Horace, a corporal who served with her, showed up some months ago to act as her protector. Kaliswa Brewster plays Alicia as a woman whose hold on the world around her has become increasingly tenuous. Her flashbacks are overtaking her everyday life, and even Horace is someone she barely remembers. 

In a line-up of plays dealing with pressing issues, “One Night” stands out as a play peopled with carefully drawn characters caught in frighteningly suspenseful situations. The play holds your interest at the same time that it raises your ire over the government’s treatment of those who risked their lives in its service.

Christina Anderson’s play, “The Ashes Under Gait City,” is one of three world premieres at this summer’s festival. And, its subject matter is the most distinctive. (Full disclosure, the playwright and I were fellow students at Brown for a year). Anderson imagines a city in Oregon that burned down,
and, when it was rebuilt, forgot – that is, excluded -- its black citizens. 

This explanation comes from a self-help guru who is called Simone the Believer. Daphne Gaines gives a firm but low-key portrayal of Simone, who decides to right the town’s wrongs by founding a black community there. 

“The Ashes Under Gait City” combines snippets of history, the strong themes of community activism and combating racism, and a character study of a charismatic – and manipulative – cult leader. The play is an original, and, in the end, disturbing account of taking justice into your own hands.

Two of the festival’s other plays have two-person casts and deal with hot-button topics. In Chisa Hutchinson’s “Dead and Breathing,” the topic is the right-to-die. A wealthy, mean-spirited cancer patient has hired and fired 16 hospice nurses. She meets her match in number 17, a nurse who claims to be – quote -- “in it for the long haul.”

“Dead and Breathing” contains a surprise – it would be a bigger surprise with more careful casting – and there’s a deus ex machina ending that is definitely not earned. But Lizan Mitchell gives a no-holds-barred portrayal of the ornery cancer patient, and we get to know and care about these two characters over the course of the play.

If “Dead and Breathing” occasionally drifts away from drama into debate, Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” sometimes feels like a TED Talk. 

The topic? Can a robot – a highly advanced robot – develop consciousness; can it learn to not only think, but feel?

Gibbons’ cast consists of a scientist and a robot. Starting out as just a head and shoulders, and eventually gaining a body and limbs, Alex Podulke plays this automaton with a voice and movements that progress from mechanical to almost human. Barbara Kingsley is the scientist.

In many ways, “Uncanny Valley” is a modern-day take on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” in which the creature goes out of control. In this case, the situation is exacerbated by wealth and greed. 

Playwright Gibbons was inspired by a National Geographic article about a project to transfer human consciousness to robots. But like the robot itself, this play lacks the flesh and blood needed to be truly dramatic. 

The festival’s fifth offering – “North of the Boulevard” – is its most elaborately staged. Set designer David M. Barber has created a grimy inner city auto repair shop, complete with a Nissan Altima and a refrigerator with a beer tap on the door.

Playwright Bruce Graham got his start doing stand-up and while he has a way with one-liners and naturalistic dialogue, reality is not necessarily drama. The play takes a long time to go anywhere, and in the end, its protagonist – the decent, hardworking owner of the garage – makes an abrupt decision that seems totally out of character. “North of the Boulevard” had a previous production in Philadelphia, but like an old car with a bad transmission – it’s ultimately not road-worthy.

Most of these plays are in various stages of development. Charles Fuller’s “One Night” had an off-Broadway run this past winter, but the playwright continues to work on it. Christina Anderson rewrote “The Ashes Under Gait City” extensively in Shepherdstown. Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” is part of the National New Play Network and has three more productions coming up.

The process the Contemporary American Theater Festival makes available to its playwrights is at least as important as the productions it offers its audiences. After nearly a quarter century, those audiences can rely on it as a mecca for new, hard-hitting drama. Diehard theatergoers can take in all five plays in just two days. And, the ride home will find you mulling over injustices plaguing everything from the military to race, social class and even science.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.