- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2005

Kicking off its 15th season this past weekend, Shepherdstown, W.Va.’s, Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) featured its usual challenging mix of new and original American plays — and Saturday’s world premiere of Sheri Wilner’s “Father Joy” leavened this year’s list of offerings with a welcome and eminently bearable lightness of being.

At the heart of the play is Abigail, a twentysomething budding sculptor nearing graduation from a university art program who’s dismayed to discover that Paul, the “environmental artist” professor she admires, is headed off on sabbatical before she can graduate.

The two tentatively commence a May-December affair for the usual reasons — he to get back in touch with his youthful imagination and she to acquire a father figure who can guide her to the answers that will unlock what’s missing in her competent but lifeless sculptures.

As the affair deepens, Abigail’s father, Harry, mysteriously begins to resemble the Invisible Man, a shy and withdrawn figure who literally fades into the background. Meanwhile, Ruth, her frantic, domineering mother, scrambles to quash the romance while preventing her husband from disappearing.

The action of the play is obviously a metaphor for the fleeting nature and impermanence of art, whether it involves Paul’s ephemeral reconstructions of nature or the new powers Abigail seems to be acquiring as a result of her father’s silence.



Against the backdrop of Markas Henry’s minimalist, feng shui-like set, the play’s cast members inhabit their quirky but very human characters, whose literal givings and takings from one another rearrange their relationships in unexpected ways.

As the aggressive Ruth, Carolyn Swift is tightly wound if occasionally overshrill. Yet her very bossiness conceals her deep and abiding insecurity.

By contrast, Jonathan Bustle as Harry, Ruth’s fading husband, is the opposite of what his real-life name might imply. Shambling, ineffective and totally lacking in assertion, he has a gift to give: himself.

However, because of their self-obsessions, this is hard for everyone else to grasp. Mr. Bustle selflessly underplays his part, emphasizing Harry’s genuine humility, a living parable of love and its transformational powers.

As the initial focal points of the drama, Michael Goodwin (Paul) and Kaci Gober (Abigail) play off each other warmly and well — from their fumbling, initial attempts at romantic connection to their later, deeper involvement. They convey with great sensitivity the nature of a romance whose sensuality derives more from the depth of the mentor-student relationship than from the intensity of youthful passion.

Still, the most moving relationship in this play, as well as the fountain of much of its humor, is the evolving bond between Abigail and Harry. Alienated from her father for most of her life, Abigail is magically transformed by the abiding father-love she comes to recognize before it’s too late.

Perceptively directed by Pam MacKinnon, “Father Joy” is light on its surface and deep underneath. It’s that increasingly rare example of a play written and directed by and for adults, treating with sensitivity and gentle humor the sadness and joy of personal relationships that grow and transform in unexpected ways — even as we try to force them to remain the same.

***

WHO: The Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHAT: “Father Joy” by Sheri Wilner

WHERE: Studio Theater on the campus of Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: In repertory Wednesdays through Sundays through July 31

TICKETS: $26 (students and seniors) to $33

INFORMATION: For details (including directions and information about accommodations) call 800/999-CATF or visit CATF online at www.catf.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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