Three plays march toward the same message

Festival productions of American tragedy offer reflection on the world after 9/11


July 17, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Two days after President Bush made his official Independence Day address in Morgantown, W.Va., vowing to keep American armed forces in Iraq "until the fight is won," the 15th annual Contemporary American Theater Festival opened in this same state, showcasing three plays that question that fight and some of the values the president espoused.

Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew, Sam Shepard's The God of Hell and Lydia Stryk's American Tet all offer responses to conditions in a post-9/11 world. Each is a modern American tragedy.

Flags are recurring motifs, but references are also made to Abu Ghraib (although the prison goes unnamed). Serving your country in past wars is honored, but serving in the current conflict is questioned.

Patriotism, all three plays suggest, is no longer an unassailable value. And terrorism is no longer the exclusive domain of the other side.

In residence at Shepherd University, the Contemporary American Theater Festival has mounted 59 plays since 1991. In contrast to its pastoral setting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the festival embraces hard-hitting, controversial, up-to-the-minute subjects.

Of course, art is often on the front lines when it comes to commenting on calamitous events. And, nearly three years after the onset of the "war on terror," Sonia Flew, The God of Hell and American Tet are hardly the first plays to deal with the changed climate here.

But beyond the timely coincidence of coming on the heels of the president's speech, what's interesting, and rather disappointing, about these three dramas is their overt, often starkly literal approach.

Largely eschewing more imaginative treatments, these plays - which seem fairly representative of the crop of post-9/11 plays as a whole - stick closely to reality. This could be an indication that the war on terror is still too immediate, as recent events in London tragically illustrate. Playwrights may feel audiences aren't ready to trade facts for metaphor and allusions.

Instead, Lopez, Shepard and Stryk present their viewpoints so forthrightly, they don't leave room for equivocation. Though the results aren't the most theatrically inventive dramas, each play offers a distinctive take on the material.

`Sonia Flew'

In Sonia Flew, Cuban-American playwright Lopez juxtaposes an act set in 2001 Minneapolis with an act set in 1961 Havana. In Minneapolis, Cuban-born Sonia (Bonnie Black) is distraught to learn that her college student son (Michael Alperin) has joined the Marines.

After intermission, the action flashes back to the mother's childhood in the early years of Fidel Castro's rule. At age 15, against her strong objections, Sonia (played by Tanya Perez) is shipped off to the United States through an underground movement called Pedro Pan, which brought 14,000 children to this country in the 1960s.

Sonia never saw her parents again and never forgave them. Now, as a mother, she is on the brink of never forgiving her son for going to war.

Although the second act explains Sonia's behavior and illuminates the theme of parents' letting go of their children, the script's two halves feel disjointed - more like a pair of one-act plays than a unified whole.

In addition, the playwright weaves too many tangential threads into the modern half. Not only does she give Sonia a husband who's a Jewish psychiatrist and a father-in-law who's a Polish refugee and World War II veteran, she overburdens the action with references to Christmas, Hanukkah and the observance of the Jewish Sabbath (a time when the mother "prays for peace and renewal," as the father-in-law points out, with a total lack of subtlety).

Still, Sonia Flew - directed by the festival's producing director, Ed Herendeen - is the most ambitious of the Shepherdstown offerings. And, in writing about Pedro Pan, Lopez uses a little-known chapter of history as a lens to examine current events.

`The God of Hell'

Shepard's The God of Hell, whose New York debut last November was intended to coincide with the presidential election, takes place on the type of remote farm that's a familiar setting for this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

In this case, it's a dairy farm in Wisconsin where a farmer (Anderson Matthews) and his wife (Carolyn Swift) live a contented, isolated life. Before the play begins, the farmer has opened his home to an old friend (Jonathan Bustle) who unexpectedly called to say that "the bottom had fallen out and he needed a place to stay."

The next morning, a mysterious government official (Lee Sellars) barges in, offering American-flag cookies and other patriotic paraphernalia. He won't reveal who he is. But it's clear that he's really after the couple's houseguest. This terrified soul turns out to have escaped from a research project where he was exposed to so much plutonium, he emits lightning flashes whenever he's touched.

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