Three plays with connections to the Washington, DC theater scene are among the six finalists for the $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which goes annually to the best new play produced by regional theater, the American Theatre Critics Association announced last night.
The list is headed up by Woolly Mammoth’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s wildly imaginative reinvention of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Stupid Fucking Bird follows the misadventures of Con, who seeks to invent a new form of theater in the face of the snide disapproval of his old-school, self-absorbed mother. “Stupid Fucking Bird won’t change the history of theater – it’s too honest to do that – but in scope of ambition, wit, insight, power of observation, beauty of language and quality of execution, is as good as anything you’ve seen in Washington this season…if you love theater,” Tim Treanor of DC Theatre Scene said in reviewing the play’s June production.
Jane Martin’s H2O, which headlined the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown last summer, is another finalist. H2O is a two-hander involving an untrained action star (who plays a mute character!) cast as Hamlet and a gifted but unknown actor cast as Ophelia. The actor playing Hamlet is a despairing atheist fully acquainted with the hypocrisy of contemporary life and of the theater; the actor playing Ophelia is an intelligent, thoughtful, deeply committed Christian whose interest in him may be romantic, may be personal, or may be professional. Of H2O, DC Theatre Scene’s Debbie Jackson said, “The…play is a pas de deux to see if their love and respect of Shakespeare can bring them together. The scenes are well-written and the relationship progresses through a series of encounters where they lurch forward towards trust and friendship, only to fall back with betrayals and accusations, then reach another milestone of mutual affection, only to be disappointed again.”
The third Steinberg finalist with a Washington connection is Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, which is having its “rolling premiere” at Olney this weekend. I and You is the story of a seriously ill teenage girl who receives an unexpected visit from a basketball-playing, Coltrane-loving classmate whose enthusiasm for Walt Whitman draws her – at first reluctantly, and then with a greater and greater sense of wonder – into a project he wants to undertake with her. In addition to being a finalist for the Steinberg, I and You was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize, given annually for new English-language plays by women.
The remaining three finalists are Noah Haidle’s Smokefall, Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, and Christopher Demos-Brown’s Fear Up Harsh. Haidle’s play tracks the unusual path of a family, from mom’s pregnancy with twins to the dotage of one of the twins. About Smokefall, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones said, “This beautiful thing is like a Michigan-based ‘Our Town,’ penned by and for a generation where Emily and George struggle to move out of the basement.”
Seven Spots on the Sun is an exercise in magical realism, in which a Latin American healer whose wife was killed by an enemy soldier in a civil war is asked to cure the soldier’s son. Broadway World’s Kelly Thompson was over the moon about Zimmerman’s play, enthusing, “I had the privilege of seeing Seven Spots on the Sun and I need to get this out of the way immediately: it was fantastic. The show was truly one of the best productions I have ever seen…The story flows the same way as a movie, and at many times it felt like I was watching a movie, with flashbacks and the play starting in the middle of the story.”
Demos-Brown’s play is a complex story in which a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, wheelchair-bound but immensely successful and prosperous, encounters the Sergeant who fought by his side. What ensues is an examination of extraordinary rendition, stolen valor, the cost of war to the warriors, and how bigotry can still be the trump card in American life. Christine Dolen of the Miami Herald called the play “Incisive, amusing, sardonic and finally deeply affecting.”
The six finalists were selected among twenty-eight plays nominated across the country as the best new plays in 2013 produced in regional theaters outside of New York City by a committee of nineteen theater critics headed by William Hirschman of Florida Theatre on Stage. Hirschman said that the nominated plays “validate the future of a vibrant 21st Century theater that mirrors today’s issues as almost never before.
“Far from disconnected and elitist, the plays reflect themes and settings encompassing bullying, racism, sexual identity in a repressive society, a street-level view of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and genocidal civil war. Some works completely re-invent established 20th Century works like The Crucible, The Seagull and The Heiress for a new century and a new audience. They reference how technology is creating previously unimagined ethical questions and ask tough questions about how the economic downtown has challenged what people thought were their unshakeable values. Refuting concerns about theater as a relevant and popularly embraced art form, the stunning array and high quality of scripts we read confirm the enduring commitment of regional theaters and a dazzling diversity of playwrights to be the primary standard-bearers for new works,” Hirschman said.
Harold Steinberg created the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust in 1986 on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater. Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufman and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way. For the full list of Steinberg/ATCA winners and runners-up click here.
In addition to the $25,000 first prize, the Steinberg Trust awards $7500 to each of two runners-up.
ATCA Executive Committee Chair Jonathan Abarbanel observes, “Even though theatre critics don’t always give playwrights good news, this awards program has been central to ATCA’s activities for nearly 40 years. We recognize that theatre begins with words on a page, and no one but the playwright is there when the page is empty. We are deeply grateful for the continuing support of the Steinberg Trust and for the opportunity to present the award each year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays [April 5, 2014.]”
In addition to Hirschman, selection committee members include Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, freelance (Bloomington, Ind.); Lindsay Christians, The Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.); Mark Cofta, Philadelphia City Paper; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne); Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal/IBJ.com; Michael P. Howley, theatremontgomery.blogspot.com; Erin Keane, Louisville Public Media; Jerry Kraft, www.SeattleActor.com (Port Angeles, Wash.); Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando; Julius Novick, veteran critic and professor (New York City); Kathryn Osenlund, CurtainUp, Phindie (Philadelphia); Wendy Parker (Midlothian, Va); Nelson Pressley, Washington Post; David Sheward, ArtsinNY.com, Theaterlife.com, NewYork.com; Herb Simpson, artesmagazine.com/theater and totaltheater.com (Geneseo, N.Y.) and Steve Treacy, Port Townsend (Wash.) Leader and Tim Treanor, DCTheatreScene.com.