- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

Memory, reality, dreams and nightmares of the near and distant past. These are the dark obsessions plaguing the characters in Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss" and Catherine Filloux's "Silence of God." Both new dramas opened last week for monthlong runs at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
"The Late Henry Moss," which received its first performances in San Francisco in late 2000, is trademark Sam Shepard. The brawling Moss brothers and their occasionally deceased father make up the latest dysfunctional clan of lonely Westerners to flow from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's prolific pen.
Tautly directed by Ed Herendeen and set in a dusty and dismal hovel outside of Bernalillo, N.M., "Henry Moss" is the story of a family reunion gone terribly wrong. The play begins with brothers Earl and Ray Moss (Kevin Carrigan and Paul Sparks) violently at odds over the disposition of their father's moldering corpse, and things rapidly go downhill from there.
In a series of violent flashbacks and fast-forwards, both the audience and younger brother Ray learn what really happened during Henry's final days as well as the grim secrets that have hollowed out what is left of his embittered family.
"Henry Moss" is the work of a reliable veteran playwright operating at the peak of his considerable powers as a storyteller and a judge of character.
The dialogue is crisp and pointed, delineating character in every sentence and phrase even as it advances the plot. Mr. Shepard, in fact, has remembered what many contemporary playwrights seem to have forgotten: Character is what draws an audience to plays and films, not special effects and explosions.
It is character that drives "Henry Moss" irresistibly forward, aided and abetted by a tremendous cast of actors who have left their own lives behind to inhabit the very souls of Mr. Shepard's decidedly unpleasant family members and associates.
Mr. Carrigan and Mr. Sparks seethe with violent emotions that are not accustomed to dwelling below the surface for long. Mr. Carrigan's Earl is not merely acting. He embodies the big, blustering elder brother who nonetheless deserted the younger Ray in his time of need and Mr. Sparks' Ray carries a lifetime of resentment in every breath he draws. The brothers constantly teeter on the edge of violence, creating an unbearable tension that coils inside this play like an overwound mainspring.
Periodically resurrected from the dead through the miracle of modern theater, Michael Goodwin also turns in a sterling performance as the thoroughly disreputable father, Henry. Yet in his forgetful, drunken lurchings, this defeated and impoverished veteran of World War II occasionally opens a tiny window on what has caused him to lose his humanity quickly blaming that loss, however, on the actions of everyone but himself. Death, for him, becomes the fulfillment of a life that has lost meaning in the mists of the past.
The three powerful leads of "Henry Moss" are ably supported by a short list of eccentrics. Adding some needed comic relief and a dose of normalcy to the proceedings is Jason Field's Taxi, the stunningly ordinary cab driver who unwittingly stumbles into a nest of human pathology. Providing some needed common sense is Mateo Gomez's lonely yet helpful neighbor, Esteban. Adding some sex appeal as well as some occasionally incomprehensible symbolism to the mix is Sylvia Roldan Dohi as the promiscuous Conchalla, who may or may not be Henry's Angel of Death.
While the violence in "Henry Moss" is intense and personal, the horrors that shroud Catherine Filloux's "Silence of God" are epic and nearly incomprehensible. Receiving its world premiere at CATF, "Silence of God," directed by Jean Randich, is a brave attempt to come to grips with the Cambodian holocaust, something that largely has failed to penetrate the American consciousness.
Miss Filloux tries to make sense of the horrors of this senseless slaughter but finds it difficult as indeed it is to draw any firm conclusions.
"Silence of God" shows many of the virtues as well as some of the flaws of a play that might have received too much tweaking in workshop. Miss Filloux's dramatic instincts are excellent, but the play might have drawn more power and focus by trimming largely needless references to literature, poetry and writing as a career.
The play is built on a love story between American reporter Sarah Holtzman (Mercedes Herrero) and exiled Cambodian poet Heng Chhay (Ron Nakahara). Heng Chhay is attempting to achieve closure after the murder of his family by the Khmer Rouge. Holtzman, in the meantime, relentlessly pursues an interview with the ruthless dictator Pol Pot. However, in a series of dreams and flashbacks, Holtzman and Chhay are not able to distance themselves from the omnipresence of millions of ghosts from the past.
"Silence of God" is a play that often emphasizes metaphor and language over character, occasionally losing focus in the treacherous thicket of moral relativism. Miss Filloux directs that the same actor who plays Heng Chhay also appear as Pol Pot. Thus, the play presents, in Janus-face, the contrast between, and at times the juncture of, good and evil.
Additionally, the play's reporter crusading, as do all reporters onstage and in film, for the elusive "truth" can be blamed persuasively for causing the play's tragic climax, but the playwright has left this possibility tantalizingly ambiguous as well. Is redemption not possible in the postmodern era?
The play's small cast does an excellent job with its complex set of characters, although the actors flubbed several lines last week, perhaps indicative of too little rehearsal time or last-minute fussing. As Heng Chhay/Pol Pot, Mr. Nakahara displayed a remarkable range of emotions and understanding. It was almost impossible to believe that the same actor was playing both parts.
In a play that is sometimes overintellectualized, Mr. Nakahara provided the emotional core as the tormented poet-monk who is sinking in spite of his own brave intentions.
As reporter Sarah Holtzman, Miss Herrero is an enigma, veering from a reporter with the bulldog tenacity of Ripley in the film "Alien" to a softer character very much in love, but Miss Herrero still seemed on occasion to be grasping for the essence of her character.
Surprisingly effective in several smaller roles, ranging from an acid-scarred flute player to the blustering thug Ta Mok, JoJo Gonzalez brought a real, malevolent energy to a play that occasionally needed an aggressive jump-start.
"Silence of God" is a brave play with a compelling story to tell, and much of the time, it tells that story well. However, if the next stop is the Big Apple, Miss Filloux will want to hone her focus a little more while clearing up the occasional confusing bits in the play's dreamlike chronology.

"The Late Henry Moss" ****;
"Silence of God"**1/2
WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, W.Va. Four plays in repertory plus special events, Tuesdays through Sundays through Aug. 4. Includes "The Late Henry Moss" by Sam Shepard, "Silence of God" by Catherine Filloux, "Thief River" by Lee Blessing and "Orange Flower Water" by Craig Wright.
WHERE: Matinee and evening performances at both the Franks Center Stage and the Studio Theater on the campus of Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W.Va. TICKETS: $20 to $25 (adults) and $18.20 (students and seniors).
PHONE: 800/999-CATF. For group and package rates, call 304/876-3473 or check the Web at www.catf.org.

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