This coming July, the five-play Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in bucolic Shepherdstown, West Virginia will feature plays from two of America’s most well-known playwrights as well as two world premieres and a play by a newly-minted performer-turned-playwright. The festival will run from July 8 to July 31st.
David Mamet’s Race is a story about a wealthy white man accused of raping an African American woman, told from the perspective of two lawyers – one black, one white. In a somewhat restrained review of the play’s production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, the Times’s Ben Brantley observed that “the issues [the play] raises, particularly on the ethnic varieties of shame and the universal nature of guilt, should offer ample nutrition for many a post-theater dinner conversation.”
CATF will also be presenting Sam Shepard’s Ages of the Moon, a study of the autumnal friendship between two men. As they sip bourbon together, they try to redefine their pasts, and the threat of violence hangs low over them. Reviewing a production at the Linda Gross Theater in New York, Brantley said that “[l]ongtime fans of Mr. Shepard should definitely see this play. It is a poignant and honest continuation of themes that have always been present in the work of one of this country’s most important dramatists, here reconsidered in the light and shadow of time passed.”
The two new plays are Kyle Bradstreet’s From Prague and Lucy Thurber’s The Insurgents. Bradstreet is a screenwriter (“Manhunt”, “Borgia”, “The Philanthropist”) whose one-act play A Story from Abeyance was voted best play at the Shortened Attention Span Halloween Festival. CATF says that in From Prague “[t]he characters – Samuel, an exiled patriarch and disgraced academic; his son, Charles, a zealot barely clinging to his faith; and Anna, the beautiful expatriate whose life has been up-ended – find themselves in a crumbling church where memory and consequence collide.”
Veteran playwright Lucy Thurber’s piece invokes famous American contrarians, including John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Timothy McVeigh and Nat Turner, in “a contemporary family’s guest for identity and survival.” The new play is Thurber’s eighth.
CATF’s fifth offering is the debut of actor-turned-playwright Tracy Thorne, which measures the effect of an obscene death on an otherwise preternaturally happy family. Thorne’s theme reflects a letter which Samuel Beckett wrote upon the death of a family friend, which read in part “I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease to be had from words or reason, and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.” We Are Here, Thorne has said, attempts to articulate the “strange thing” that Beckett described.
Each year, Washingtonians find their way to the hills of West Virginia, artistic directors and literary scouts among them, to sample the repertory offerings of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. Recent plays to have emerged from the festival onto area stages have been: Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, presented in 2010 by Arena Stage and just closed at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore featuring David Emerson Toney as the father, the role he performed at CATF in 2008; Pig Farm, also from 2008, seen at 1st Stage in 2009; and from the 2009 festival, Dear Sara Jane was produced by Hub Theatre in 2010 and Farragut North opens April 27th at Olney Theatre Center.
Details, directions and tickets to the Contemporary American Theater Festival are available at CATF’s website, www.catf.org. If you plan to attend and stay overnight, best to make plans in advance as area hotels begin filling up early.