Secrets & Choices

Beauty, blood, brio - and more - on the stages of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia.

July 24, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Secrets are being exposed and tough moral choices hashed over on stage at this summer's Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Now in its 12th year, this annual summer showcase of new and recent plays is located in one of America's most verdant spots - the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But Shepherdstown is also cheek-by-jowl to the battlefields that saw some of the bloodiest combat in the Civil War.

The contrast between beauty and bloodshed is typified by the four plays that make up the current season. You may come to this year's festival to be entertained by the skillful artistry of the productions (and you won't be disappointed). But you will leave mulling over thorny ethical issues that range from the personal (adulterous love in Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water) to the political (genocide in Catherine Filloux's Silence of God).

A strong but equally wide-ranging male sensibility colors most of the selections - from Lee Blessing's examination of closeted homosexuality in Thief River to Sam Shepard's return to his familiar territory of violence, alcoholism and father-son feuds in The Late Henry Moss.

Though there isn't a clear standout, all four shows are stimulating. Shepard's new work - while not flawless - is the slickest. Part of its polish may be due to the fact that it's already been produced on both coasts (with casts that boasted such high-profile stars as Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Ethan Hawke).

As this production history suggests, festival producing director Ed Herendeen has a loose interpretation of the phrase "new play." He recognizes that while many theaters like the prestige of producing a premiere, there's often less incentive to mount a second or third production.

That's not a problem with a writer of Shepard's stature. He's the biggest name ever produced here - a distinction that could lead audiences to expect similarly big things. Instead, we get a reiteration of such typical Shepard themes as sibling rivalry, toxic family history and the need to confront the past, as well as the type of hard-drinking, unstable characters who populate such Shepard chestnuts as True West and Buried Child.

Under Herendeen's athletic direction, Kevin Carrigan and Paul Sparks portray belligerent, estranged brothers Earl and Ray Moss, who are brought together by the recent death of their father, Henry (Michael Goodwin). Neither brother is a brain trust, but Ray is shrewd enough to suspect that Earl, who arrived at their father's house first, isn't telling the full story about the old man's death.

While this grants the play a strong element of mystery, it shouldn't take three often-repetitive acts for the mystery to be solved. Nor does it help that Goodwin's Henry, who's seen in flashbacks, comes across as too meek to have ever been a mean, abusive drunk.

Although Sparks delivers a frighteningly fierce portrayal of bullying Ray, the most intriguing character is the sole female - Henry's young Mexican girlfriend, Conchalla, who taunted the old coot by insisting he was dead. Sylvia Roldan Dohi portrays Conchalla with enormous brio and a touch of mysticism. A cross between a raucous good-time girl and the angel of death, Conchalla recognizes that a man can be dead in spirit long before he's dead in body - and that, essentially, is Shepard's point.

Examining love

The hit of last year's festival was Wright's The Pavilion (which will be produced at Everyman Theatre in May). Orange Flower Water continues the playwright's series set in the fictitious town of Pine City, Minn.

Love and romantic mistakes are at the heart of both plays, but the new script lacks the lyricism and bold theatricality of its predecessor. And, though deftly crafted and performed, it also fails to deliver fresh insights on the destructive shrapnel of adultery or the impact of divorce.

Jason Field's David and Libby West's Beth have fallen in love and decided to marry, even though their marriage will rip apart their two existing families. Director Leah C. Gardiner and set design Markas Henry situate the action on and around a centrally located bed. When not actively involved in a scene, the play's four actors sit or stand in the corners of the stage, an effective way of indicating that what goes on in this bedroom affects those outside it. In addition, most of the scenes involve only two actors at a time, a logical choice for a play about couples.

But whether or not the playwright intended it, what's unspoken proves more powerful than anything the characters say or do. David and Beth may insist that their first marriages were a mistake, but at least in this production, it's obvious that they belong with their original spouses (Mercedes Herrero as David's smart, bossy wife, and Sparks as Beth's loutish but devoted husband).

In other words, David and Beth aren't making the same mistake all over again, they're making a worse mistake - a realization that haunts the tender sentiment Wright tacks on.

Seeking acceptance

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