Fest of playwrights is stage of growth

10th anniversary plays lack some polish, but the range offers much encouragement.

Theater

July 16, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. -- The exploitation of Marilyn Monroe, Mary Todd Lincoln's commitment to an insane asylum, venal get-rich schemes and unfulfilled longing. These are the subjects of the four plays mounted by Shepherdstown's Contemporary American Theater Festival for its 10th anniversary season.

Although the results are varied, the breadth of themes, styles, settings and subject matter offers an encouraging indication of the imaginative and intellectual range of modern American playwrights.

Shepherding new plays is the mission of the Shepherdstown festival, which has produced 38 plays over the past decade, including 11 world premieres. The playwrights have ranged from relative unknowns to such established writers as John Patrick Shanley (screenwriter of "Moonstruck") and Joyce Carol Oates, whose third festival play, "Miss Golden Dreams," is one of three world premieres this summer. The others are Catherine Filloux's "Mary & Myra" and Sheri Wilner's "Hunger."

Richard Dresser's "Something in the Air" isn't a premiere, although the playwright rewrote the first act for this production, the standout of the festival. A Shepherdstown veteran, Dresser has had two previous plays produced here, "Below the Belt" and "Gun-Shy." Both received subsequent off-Broadway runs, and "Something in the Air" is a strong contender to continue the trend.

After tackling corporate power struggles and divorce, the acerbic playwright has now turned his attention to the survival of the greediest, a subject that, judging from the popularity of such TV shows as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor," has become a national obsession.

Out of work and out of hope, Walker, an Everyman figure played by Lee Sellars with a mixture of innocence and desperation, takes his troubles to an analyst named Neville, only to discover that Neville is not a psychoanalyst but a financial analyst. However, Neville -- played by Michael Goodwin as a slick, amoral wheeler-dealer -- has a proposition that Walker decides will do him more good than therapy. (Think "Faust," with a devil named "Neville.")

Neville's business is selling the life insurance policies of terminally ill patients who change their beneficiary in exchange for some upfront cash. He hooks Walker up with his most terminal prospect, Cram, a travel agent who contracted a fatal disease on a safari.

Neville assures Walker this is the safest investment he'll ever make. But unlike buying stock in an unseen corporation, this is an investment with a human face, and, as played by scowling, antagonistic Anderson Matthews, a none-too-pretty face at that. Cram's unlikability should help quiet Walker's qualms, but when Walker decides to make the man's last days on Earth as pleasant -- and as short -- as possible, his efforts backfire.

Dresser writes with a deliciously dark comic sensibility, and director Ed Herendeen (the festival's founder and producing director) matches it with appropriate over-the-top, film noir-style staging. Although "Something in the Air" has an unexpectedly sweet ending, it puts Walker's desires in perspective in this creepy morality tale for our avaricious times.

*

While Dresser is adept at taking the pulse of the present, two other festival playwrights look to the past to show how little has changed. Filloux's "Mary & Myra" examines the public perception of first ladies and women lawyers. And though the specific situation Filloux depicts is an extreme case, it's not without modern-day parallels.

The time is 1875, and Mary Todd Lincoln, widowed 10 years earlier by the assassination of her husband, has been committed to a sanatorium by her first-born and sole surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln. Fighting for her release is a friend, Myra Bradwell, founder of the Chicago Legal News, and one of America's first woman lawyers, though she was denied the right to practice because of her gender.

Baltimore actress Rosemary Knower is exemplary as Lincoln, intermingling the woman's rage and her child-like exuberance until the line between sanity and insanity begins to blur -- one of the play's themes. Knower leaves no doubt that Mary Todd Lincoln was a troubled, and at times difficult, woman, but she also earns our understanding and sympathy.

As the younger, more dynamic Bradwell, however, Babo Harrison is more a 1970s than an 1870s woman, gesturing and speaking too brashly even for a woman ahead of her time. Harrison's jarring performance detracts from the interplay between the two women, draining much of the punch from the otherwise satisfying final scene in which Lincoln, who hews to the old-fashioned dictum that "a woman's place is in the home," and career-driven Bradwell find common ground.

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