Shepherdstown, W. Va., sits on the Potomac River about 60 twisting miles from Washington, D.C. It's less than 15 minutes' drive from Antietam, the bloody Civil War battlefield, and nearly as close to Harper's Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown led an armed raid in 1859 (and was hung for his trouble). When founded in 1762, Shepherdstown was in Virginia. In 1863, pro-Union sentiment triggered the separation of West Virginia from Confederate Virginia, and Shepherdstown instantly became the new state's oldest community.
Local tourism capitalizes on history and a prime location near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shepherdstown offers picturesque streets lined with Federalist-era and mid-19th-century Italianate buildings, a surprising number of excellent restaurants, and a friendly, small town atmosphere. There are only 1,800 full-time residents in and near town, although the population swells by 4,600 during the academic year due to Shepherd University, a 140 year old school of liberal arts and sciences.
In 1991, Shepherd University proposed creating a summertime Shakespeare festival as a promotional tool for the school, a tourist draw for the area and an economic engine for the region. Incredibly, it's worked out precisely as imagined except that, instead of Shakespeare, Shepherdstown got the Contemporary American Theatre Festival devoted entirely to new work.
New plays are the flesh and blood of Chicago's celebrated theater scene and local audiences embrace the unknown. That's not the situation in most of the country, however, which makes the Shepherdstown achievement all the more remarkable. Recently, I spent six days in Shepherdstown at the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, hosted by the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).
Based on this year's five-play schedule, CATF is not the place to discover unknown writers, preferring new pieces by established playwrights. This year's line-up features works by Sam Shepard (whose Simpatico currently is in production at A Red Orchid Theatre), Mark St. Germain (whose Freud's Last Session enjoyed a long run at the Mercury Theater) and Jane Martin (frequently produced in Chicago).
Indeed, Martin's H20 is best of the CATF and features Chicago actor (now moving to NYC) Diane Mair in a leading role. Jane Martin is a pseudonym for one or more writers, but H20 has the uniformity of a single author. It's a pithy, tense and impassioned two-character play concerning a Hollywood bad-boy playing Hamlet on Broadway. He knows that stardom doesn't equal talent, money doesn't equal happiness and he's been hired for his name value. He believes his Ophelia, a devout Christian young woman, can sooth his insecurities and tame his Charlie Sheen habits. Despite an emotionally-unneeded shock-value final scene, H20 is finished, polished and ready to meet the world, which I fully expect it will.
The biggest disappointment is Heartless, a 2012 play by Sam Shepard. He's a great and prolific playwright, but Heartless is not his best. It's set in a Los Angeles hilltop home occupied by a mother, two daughters, a nurse and a 65-year-old male pick-up. The nurse may be a ghost some of the time, her heart now beating in the chest of one of the daughters. Heartless is a Shepard rarity, a female-centric play, but his highly-stylized characters aren't recognizable as women, that is female human beings. They are incomplete and otherworldly creatures.
Of the remaining three plays, I expect that Mark St. Germain's Scott and Hem at the Garden of Allah will be widely produced. This three-character play portrays Earnest Hemingway (drinking) and Scott Fitzgerald (on the wagon) in 1937. It's skillful and entertaining, but Hemingway's psycho-sexual hang-ups and passive-aggressive attitude towards other writers have been done to death, although the more effete Fitzgerald is interesting.
I love the premise of A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams: the witch-accusing adolescent girls of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, as they might be 10 years later in 1702. Long-separated, one has moved far on while the other hasn't, and their colonial community seems little-changed. The play has great potential but needs a stronger second half and ending. A Chicago companyTimeLine, Steppenwolf, Writers' Theatre?should give Adams a second production and developmental support.
The final play, Jon Kern's Modern Terrorism, concerns incompetent Islamic bomb radicals in New York. The play is semi-comic before playing out to a logical violent conclusion. CATF folk feel it's controversial because it challenges audiences to laugh at terrorists, if not at terrorism. (There's a distinction.) I didn't find it controversial in part because incompetence usually is laughable, but more so because Kern doesn't fully commit to the comic muse. Maybe he should.
Oh, yes: the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has elected me chair. I'm the big kahuna of the only nationwide organization for professional theater critics. My WCT colleagues Scott Morgan and Mary Shen Barnidge also are ATCA members.