“Tell the people,” Ed Herendeen said, strolling through the hallways of Shepherd University.
Herendeen has a vested interest in telling the people. He is the founder and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, an annual summer showcase for new plays. Five new plays by American Playwrights are presented on the Shepherd campus through July 29, 2012.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival – CATF – may also be a best kept secret, due to its location, off the beaten path: Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Approximately 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., Shepherdstown is nestled along the Potomac River in the Eastern Panhandle, and is the oldest town in the Mountain State.
For 22 years, the summer tradition of the Contemporary American Theater Festival has persisted, with more than 100 plays produced since 1991. Works by David Mamet, Joyce Carol Oates, John Patrick Shanley, and Sam Shepard have been featured in previous seasons. Among this season’s plays, two are world premieres.
I was able to catch two of the 2012 plays: the world premiere of GIDION’S KNOT by Johnna Adams, and THE EXCEPTIONALS by Bob Clyman.
In GIDION’S KNOT, a mother arrives to meet her son’s teacher. Not expecting the parent, the teacher is defensive and the conference begins with an air of tension. Heather – an assured performance by Joey Parsons – is the young, inexperienced teacher dealing with the concerned parent. The mother, Corryn, is played with strong conviction and emotional clarity by Robin Walsh.
The tight, 85-minute play slowly reveals layer upon layer of motherly devotion, human responsibility, and a heavy dose of anguish. Saying too much more about the play could potentially spoil the twists and turns. Suffice it to say, the two characters engage in a high stakes duet that resonates long after the school room lights are turned off.
The play was cleverly staged by Ed Herendeen in a Shepherd art studio space transformed into an elementary school classroom: desks took up the central playing area as the audience was seating three quarters around them. Before the show, a teacher and her class finished up their school day until the bell rang and Heather arrived to work in the room afterschool. The laser sharp concentration of the performers within the very real setting helped hold the audience’s attention.
Across the campus, in the black box Studio, a different play about parents and their children unfolded. Bob Clyman’s THE EXCEPTIONALS takes the audience into a near future where parents can select genetically superior sperm for artificial insemination. The resulting children are exceptional – advanced academically, to be handled with special attention, even if it means creating a unique school for them. Parents struggle, deciding whether to treat their children as unique specimens or allow them to be normal children.
Deirdre Madigan is Claire, spokesperson and main contact person at the genetic institute. The ideally cast Madigan performed with quiet authority, in a central role, among the ensemble. Rebecca Harris and Anne Marie Nest were a study in contrasts, as mothers of gifted children. Harris – as brittle and secretive Gwen – and Nest – open and unedited as Allie – skillfully managed the emotional and moral journeys of their characters. As Allie’s husband Tom, Joseph Tisa was the very picture of a working stiff who seemingly cannot relate to his super intelligent son.