- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

THEATER COLUMN:

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The annual Contemporary American Theater Festival kicked off its monthlong season over the weekend on the campus of Shepherd University, adding a fifth production this year to the traditional repertory of four new or nearly new American plays.

Four programs are being presented in the university’s large Frank Center auditorium and the Studio Theater, an intimate black-box stage in the center of campus. Producing director Ed Herendeen has mounted the fifth play in the studio space of the newly opened initial wing of the school’s Center for Contemporary Arts.

Perhaps the strongest play so far is J.T. Rogers’ “The Overwhelming.” This must-see drama explores the seemingly overnight eruption of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when nearly 1 million Rwandans were clubbed and hacked to death in an unprecedented frenzy of tribal bloodletting.

‘The Overwhelming’

“The Overwhelming” focuses on the Twilight Zone of a Rwandan society in which nothing is ever as it appears. The play takes in these events as we might, through the eyes of classic liberal professor Jack Exley (Lee Sellers). He has just arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, to research a book on the medical work of his old college roommate and now Rwandan physician, Joseph (Avery Glymph). Exley brings along his new wife, Linda (Tijuana T. Ricks), who happens to be black, as well as his sullen but highly intelligent white son, Geoffrey (Graham Powell).

The family is soon enmeshed in a crescendo of violence they cannot comprehend as they attempt to impose liberal American values on a society whose history has no use for them. The resulting personal catastrophe is but a microcosm of the horrific whole.

Mr. Rogers’ play suffers at times from overly long exposition, but the work can’t really be condemned for this. The Rwandan genocide achieved surprisingly little attention, at least in America, from the normally bleeding-heart liberal media.

“The Overwhelming” is a bit longer than it needs to be, inserting subtle history lessons here and there to provide context. It is still a powerful, moving drama, bravely exploring a topic that seems to concern few people and forcing the audience to experience the eruption of violence in a personal way. The play never resorts to preaching or propaganda but lays out instead the serial carnage in a way the media rarely cared to do.

The festival’s ensemble acting is superb, the story is compelling, and the history lesson is indispensable.

Moving from Africa back to the United States, the festival offers two very different social dramas and problem comedies, Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly” and Richard Dresser’s “A View of the Harbor.”

‘Stick Fly’

“Stick Fly” offers an unusual glimpse into the lives of a wealthy, dysfunctional black family summering on Martha’s Vineyard. Artfully dodging opportunities to deploy the kind of cliches that made “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” popular on television, the playwright focuses on a black American upper class that is more extensive - and more invisible - than anyone realizes.

Paterfamilias Joe Levay (David Emerson Toney), a neurosurgeon, entertains his sons, Flip (Avery Glymph) and Kent (Maduka Steady), and their significant others, Flip’s upper-crust white girlfriend, Kimber (Anne Marie Nest), and Kent’s highly intelligent but socially damaged fiancee, Taylor. Rounding out the family is the young maid, Cheryl, who makes a startling discovery that will change everyone’s world forever.

Playwright Diamond is extraordinarily successful, daring to examine the possibility that perhaps it’s not race, but social class and pressures that more strongly influence our personal outcomes. Her characters are interesting, articulate and frustrating, and her comic touches exhibit great wit and perceptiveness.

“Stick Fly” is a fine, knowing entertainment that packs a subtle, almost unique social message. Namely, as F. Scott Fitzgerald would have agreed, the rich are indeed “very different from you and me” whether they’re black or white. The drawback is that its denouement runs a trifle long and becomes a bit tedious. Selective snipping of redundant lines and pregnant pauses could help rectify the problem.

‘A View of the Harbor’

Mr. Dresser takes us to coastal Maine to explore the eccentricities and foibles of another rich family, this one white. Part of the playwright’s trilogy of comedies focusing initially on lower-class and middle-class happiness or the lack thereof, the world premiere of “A View of the Harbor” explores the lives of a declining family of wealthy white industrialists who seem more unhappy than anyone alive, excepting the patriarch of the family, the seemingly heartless Daniel (rousingly portrayed by Anderson Matthews).

Sadly, Mr. Dresser’s play is not up to the standards of his earlier installments. Worse, actors fumbled their lines, indicating some changes may have been made during rehearsals - although this is not uncommon in a new play. The problem is that Mr. Dresser, unlike Miss Diamond, is not quite sure who his wealthy characters are or if he even likes them very much.

There’s good material here. Mr. Dresser has proved he can write terrific plays, but this one needs some retooling before attempting future venues. Pumping up inner motivation, focus and attitude while adding more insightful jokes would go a long way toward bringing “A View of the Harbor” up to the strong standards set by his earlier plays.

WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival: “The Overwhelming” ★★★★ “Stick Fly” ★★★ “A View of the Harbor” ★

WHERE: Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Through Aug. 3; matinees and evenings in repertory with two other plays

TICKETS: $26 to $36

PHONE: 304/876-3473; 800/999-2283

WEB SITE: www.catf.org; www.catf.org/planyourexperience/directions.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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