Words matter, and, as audiences have come to expect, this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, W. Va., brings the words and stories of six new plays to life in well-produced and strongly acted productions, a hallmark of the festival. Once again, Producing Director Ed Herendeen and his team have curated a set of plays in rotating repertory that make for a thought-provoking and satisfying theatergoing experience.
My adventure started this year with “Chester Bailey,” a two-character piece performed in the festival’s Studio 112, the most intimate of its three venues. The story takes place in a Long Island hospital in 1945, where Chester Bailey is convalescing after suffering a devastating injury in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where he worked as a riveter. He was the victim of a cruel crime committed by a madman who used an oxyacetylene torch as an eraser, essentially obliterating Bailey’s eyes and hands. But, Bailey refuses to admit he has any disabilities, preferring to live in an imaginary world where he interacts with a beautiful woman, sees colorful paintings, and feels things he holds with his hands. Is it all imagination, or does he actually believe he can see and feel?
… ‘Chester Bailey’ is a poignant piece that unpacks the power of imagination,…
Playwright Joseph Dougherty has crafted a heart wrenching story that starts with two intertwining monologues that eventually merge when the characters meet. “Chester Bailey” is a poignant piece that unpacks the power of imagination, the elusive ability we have to survive extenuating circumstances, and the unlikely deep and symbiotic relationship between a doctor, Dr. Phillip Cotton, and his patient, Chester Bailey.
Chester Bailey showcases some of the most powerful acting in this year’s lineup, but the bar is quite high as the company of 21 is replete with accomplished and audacious actors. Real life father son team Reed Birney (Dr. Cotton) and Ephraim Birney (Chester Bailey) pack a huge emotional punch as the play comes to a head and Dr. Cotton realizes that it’s best to leave Bailey with his fantasies rather than destroy him with the truth. Director Ron Lagomarsino’s skillful directing choices serve the unique structure of the play quite well.
The other piece staged in Studio 112 is perhaps my favorite of this year’s festival. “Antonio’s Song” was co-authored by Dael Orlandersmith and actor Antonio Edwards Suarez. Suarez’s compelling performance of his autobiographical story draws us into his world as he uses words, song, dance, and gesture to share his reality with us. Ultimately, the play reveals how just one person, or a few small gestures can make an enormous difference in bettering someone’s life who may be struggling because of his circumstances.
With the aid of evocative placemaking and impressionistic projections, the audience is transported to the rough Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn where we meet Suarez’s family and a dozen or so other characters—all played by Suarez. Suarez, who is Black, Latin, and Irish, hangs out with both Latin and Black friends, but never together: “Hangin with my Latin friends Monday/Wednesday and part of Saturday. My Black friends Tuesday/Friday and the other part of Saturday. Sunday was my day of rest.” Suarez gives an electrifying performance that is not to be missed. Mark Clements directs this world premiere, and movement and choreography are by Alexandra Beller.
CATF explores the idea that stories, like words, also matter. If we experience something together, will we tell the same story?
“Wrecked,” written by Greg Kalleres and performed in the Marinoff Theater, starts with a fascinating premise: John and Victoria were heading home one night when they hit a deer. Or maybe a dog? Or maybe something else? When police flashers go by and the doorbell rings, the terror of not really knowing seizes them. This funny, albeit rambling, play directed by Shelley Butler tackles relationships, communication, storytelling, truth, and fiction within a whodunnit-type framework that keeps you both laughing and on the edge of your seat. The ensemble works well together and plays this world premiere comedy with impeccable timing, especially Julia Coffey and Chris Thorn who give standout performances.
“My Lord, What a Night” by Deborah Brevoort, is worth seeing for many reasons but particularly for John Leonard Pielmeier’s performance as Albert Einstein and Lizan Mitchell’s portrayal of activist Mary Church Terrell. It’s a significant piece about the meeting and friendship between Einstein and Marian Anderson that touches upon many topical issues including racism, anti-Semitism, and the struggles to move beyond. Ed Herendeen directs this world premiere production. The piece was originally commissioned by New Jersey’s Liberty Museum to serve as a living exhibit on an aspect of New Jersey history.
The other two plays in the rotating repertory—”Support Group for Men” and “Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale”—round out this year’s festival.
In the entertaining play, “Support Group,” we meet a group of guy friends who get together weekly for self-led group therapy, complete with a talking stick made out of a baseball bat. They drink pink wine and talk about whatever comes to mind: sexuality, aging, work, and what life is like as a man in the age of #metoo. Written by Ellen Fairey and directed by Courtney Sale (yes, both women), the play is alternately moving and funny as all of the characters learn a little about each other and a lot about the value of listening and tolerance.
Herendeen commissioned and directed “Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale” by veteran playwright Michael Weller. The play could use a bit of a trim, but the slapstick treatment of some very serious topics sheds a lot of light on any number of contemporary issues. Weller implores us to just relax and enjoy the comedy: “Everything is being thrown at us to divide us. Maybe what I’m trying to do in this play is to get us all to laugh for a moment. We are taking stuff way too seriously,” he commented in an interview. I’ll take his advice and not read too much into it. The acting was strong, and the play was funny. Done.
CATF offers six new plays in rotating repertory in beautiful and quaint Shepherdstown. The Contemporary American Theater Festival celebrates its 29th season through July 28 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Tickets: $37-$67. Discounted passes are available, and don’t forget your dinner reservations. 304-876-3473, 800-999-CATF or catf.org.
Beth Hauptle is a Marketing Consultant for arts and nonprofit organizations who has held major marketing and communications positions at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. She also writes for several magazines, newspapers, and blogs.