- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) launches its 2003 summer season in colorful Shepherdstown, W.Va., this weekend with four exciting plays, including a world-premiere drama by Lee Blessing and an erotic musical by Erin Cressida Wilson.

Tucked into a bend of the Potomac River in West Virginia’s historic eastern panhandle, the cozy campus of tiny Shepherd College is hosting the festival.

CATF has made a name for itself over the years by highlighting not the tried and true, but the daring and new, mixing fresh works by veteran dramatists such as Mr. Blessing, Sam Shepherd and novelist Joyce Carol Oates with innovative new plays by many of tomorrow’s promising new dramatists.

While Broadway is still the promised land for theatergoers, people from as far away as Boston and beyond regularly flock to Shepherdstown each summer to catch a breath of fresh theatrical air untainted by the predictable Big Apple predilection for risk-free, recycled musicals on one hand and the tired, monotonously leftish avant-garde on the other. Now more than ever, regional theater is where it’s at, and CATF has become an increasingly important stopping place for American dramatists with something interesting to say.

The centerpiece of the 2003 season would have to be Mr. Blessing’s intriguingly named “Whores.” The veteran dramatist’s new play zeroes in on a still controversial political topic, the slaughter of American nuns, among others, by a Central American general who clearly is a stand-in for a host of interchangeable Latin dictators of the 1970s and ‘80s. The central character is now enjoying life in America, and Mr. Blessing is unlikely to let him off the hook for his brutal past.

Mr. Blessing probably is most famous for his play “A Walk in the Woods,” which copped nominations for the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His “Thief River” was produced last season at CATF.

Also likely to stir the pot is “Wilder,” billed as “an erotic chamber musical.” Penned by Erin Cressida Wilson, with music and additional lyrics by Mike Craver and Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers, “Wilder” charts the life of a young boy who reaches maturity while living in a Depression-era house of ill repute.

A professor at Duke University, Miss Wilson also penned the feature film “Secretary,” which garnered honors at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. After these performances, “Wilder” will move on to New York, where it is scheduled to open this fall.

Eric Coble, a founding member of the Cleveland Play House Playwrights, brings his “Bright Ideas” to Shepherdstown this summer. Mr. Coble’s play focuses on parental obsessions, in this case, the single-minded need of Joshua and Genevra Bradley to get their preschool son into their town’s most hoity-toity school.

Mr. Coble’s comedy is likely to strike close to home for many theatergoers who live in Washington’s compulsively competitive suburbs, where many children serve as surrogates for their parents’ own thwarted ambitions. Many of Mr. Coble’s plays have been produced off-Broadway and in regional theaters around the country. He also contributes occasional bits to National Public Radio.

Rounding out this year’s slate of plays is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz,” another comedy with a darker touch. It zeroes in on a family reunion that turns into a predictable free-for-all. The play, which premiered in Florida last fall, is receiving its first area performances. Miss Laufer recently served as a playwright in residence at the Juilliard School.

In addition to its plays, CATF also sponsors free events during the weekends, including music and lectures. For the future, the festival hopes to realize a long-term goal of bringing sculptors, composers, writers and playwrights to an artists’ colony complex that would be constructed in the woods adjacent to the college.

In the meantime, there’s already plenty to do in the eastern panhandle. Shepherdstown is a delightful small town, a mini-Georgetown that has been restored attentively and houses several restaurants, shops and galleries. If the usual weekend thunderclouds hold back, it’s a nice town for a leisurely stroll.

It’s also home to at least one first-class restaurant, the popular Yellow Brick Bank, which recently opened a new dining room in the bar area. With the festival under full sail, reservations at this trendy German Street landmark may be difficult to get, but you can give it a try at 304/876-2208.

A worthy alternative, about a 45-minute drive to the west via State Routes 45 and 9, is charming Berkeley Springs, home of the nation’s first spa as well as the surprisingly tony restaurant Lot 12 Public House, situated at 117 Warren St. (304/258-6264). Again, reservations are a must.

Dinner, theater, a drive in the country — how can you lose? The best theater on the East Coast starts this weekend, and tickets are just a phone call away.

WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, W.Va. Four plays in repertory plus special free events. Plays: “Whores” by Lee Blessing; “Wilder” by Erin Cressida Wilson, with music and lyrics by Mike Craver and Jack Herrick; “Bright Ideas” by Eric Coble; and “The Last Schwartz” by Deborah Zoe Laufer.

WHERE: Both the Franks Center Stage and the Studio Theater on the campus of Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Matinee and evening performances Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 3.

TICKETS: $22.50 to $30 (adults) with a 10 percent discount for students and seniors. Group packages available; call 304/876-3473.

INFORMATION: Call 800/999-CATF. Or consult the detailed Web site at www.catf.org.

ALSO HAPPENING: Goose Route Dance Festival, July 11 through 13 and July 18 through 20 at the Shepherdstown War Memorial Building, second floor, German Street. Telephone: 646/831-3548.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Washington, north and suburban Maryland:

Take Interstate 270 to Frederick bypass, Interstate 70; take Exit 49, turn left onto Route 40 Alternate to Braddock Heights-Boonsboro; turn left in Boonsboro on Maryland 34 to Shepherdstown.

From D.C. south and Northern Virginia:

Take Interstate 66 to the Dulles Toll Road west; remain on the Toll Road as it turns into the Dulles Greenway and proceed to the Greenway’s end in Leesburg, taking the Leesburg bypass west (Routes 7 and 15); past Leesburg, exit on Route 9 and proceed through Charles Town, W.Va., to Kearneysville; turn right on Route 480 to Shepherdstown.


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