Heating up the stage in Shepherdstown

Festival examines winning, race, national security and romance


July 18, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- There are enough hot-button issues on stage at this summer's Contemporary American Theater Festival to singe the average theatergoer.

The four plays -- including two world premieres -- in this 14th annual festival tackle such sizzling topics as racial profiling, post-9 / 11 security, bigotry, the nature and cost of competitiveness, and an issue that's been particularly incendiary in Maryland lately: whether Spanish-speaking Americans should be required to speak English.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which runs through Aug. 1, not only offers a forum for playwrights dealing with up-to-the-minute concerns, but has a history of nurturing plays that have gone on to off-Broadway and regional theaters across the country, including such area venues as Everyman Theatre, Columbia's Rep Stage and Washington's Arena Stage.

The hit of this year's lineup is Richard Dresser's Rounding Third, a play that has had several previous productions, including off-Broadway. Contentious, scabrously comic and highly accessible, it deserves to be seen by even wider audiences.

The accessibility factor stems from the subject matter -- Little League. Dresser pits two diametrically opposed dads, a coach and his assistant, against each other and uses their antagonism to examine fatherhood, friendship, rage and, most of all, the dangers of the winner-takes-all mentality.

What elevates Rounding Third from mere debate to bristling drama, however, is that Dresser has created a pair of fully developed characters, who are powerfully realized by Lee Sellars and Andy Prosky, under Ed Herendeen's muscular direction.

A tightly coiled spring of barely repressed hostilities, Sellars' Coach Don sums up his philosophy of baseball -- and life -- in his first address to the team: "One word. Winning."

Prosky's Assistant Coach Michael, on the other hand, is a sensitive soul, whose initial advice to the kids is: "The fun is in the playing, not the winning and the losing." Behaving at times like two kids themselves (Sellars as the schoolyard bully, Prosky as the sissy), these two engage in sparring sessions that crackle with energy and hilarity.

Although the play includes a degree of role reversal, Dresser is a smart enough playwright not to leave things at that. Instead, he has crafted an ending that ensures that each character learns from the other, while never completely sacrificing essential differences.

Race relations

Lee Blessing, like Dresser, is a repeat playwright at Shepherds-town, as well as a writer who regularly focuses on the type of hard-hitting, masculine-oriented topics at which this festival excels.

One of the event's world premieres, Blessing's Flag Day is a double bill of one-acts that take an unvarnished look at race relations. In Good, Clean Fun, a veteran corporate employee (Sellars again), who is white, shares an office with the younger black man (Albert Jones) who was promoted over him.

The corporation has a novel anti-discrimination policy that gives employees, as Jones' character puts it, "the rare and golden opportunity to share our innermost fears and hatreds" by setting an egg timer and spouting whatever vitriol strikes their fancy in two-minute increments.

Clever as the situation may be, the characters are undernourished and their debate rarely becomes more than a spirited -- make that mean-spirited -- exchange that reinforces how painfully far apart the races remain.

Blessing's second one-act, Down and Dirty, is based on a gruesome event that actually took place in Texas in 2001: A woman hit a homeless man with her car, impaling him in the windshield, then left him to bleed to death in her garage.

As envisioned by the playwright and realized by director Lucie Tiberghien and set designer Markas Henry, the image of the victim -- Sellars suspended nearly motionless in a harness contraption -- is almost painful to watch. It's an image that re- inforces the chilling cruelty of the driver (Roslyn Wintner), who not only watches him die, but yells at him to speed it up.

Blessing has acknowledged that he chose not to research the details of the case, but used it as a springboard to imagine what might have happened and what the characters -- the victim was white; the driver, black -- might have said to each other.

In several instances, however -- particularly the interpolation of the character of a writer (Michael Flanigan) into the piece -- Blessing simply appears to be trying too hard. In the end, his script produces few insights that approach the disturbing impact of the situation itself or its visual representation on stage.

Patriot Act

Pushing the hottest of the hot buttons in this summer's festival is Stuart Flack's Homeland Security, a play that begins with its two main characters -- an American doctor of East Indian heritage and his Jewish-American girlfriend -- being questioned by an FBI agent at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

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