Dispatches From the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Five intriguing plays run through July at the annual West Virginia showcase for new theater.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Washington audiences are pretty spoiled when it comes to new theater this month. Not only does the Capital Fringe Festival kick off this week, bringing shows about everything from superhero celebrity rehab to the intricacies of trash collection, but 90 minutes outside of Washington, five new plays are running through July 29 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

I drove out to CATF on Saturday to catch three of the five shows in the rotation: Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep, which made its debut in London’s West End last year, and the world premiere plays Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams and Barcelona by Bess Wohl. LaBute’s show is undoubtedly the star attraction at this year’s festival—it’s directed by festival founder Ed Herendeen (read our interview with him here) and stars Broadway regulars Johanna Day and Joey Collins as a sister and brother who come together on a stormy night to pack up the contents of a remote cabin.

The production is tightly put together, and both actors are impressive, but the play itself lacks finesse. For starters, the pathetic fallacy invoked by the constant thunder and lightning suggests horror, and LaBute constantly hints that something macabre is about to happen—the isolated house loses power a couple of times after a particularly aggressive thunderclap, and there are several references to a Chekhov’s gun-like filing cabinet upstairs. An hour and 40 minutes is a long time to devote to squabbles between siblings, however dark or resentful they may be. By the time the show’s crux is revealed, it’s fairly predictable, and almost a letdown after the taut melodrama we’ve been promised. You get the sense LaBute is banking on his characters being compelling enough to carry the show, but they’re rarely realistic or absorbing enough to fulfill the play’s promise.

The opposite could be said of Gidion’s Knot, a heart-stopping new show by Johnna Adams. The play is set in a fifth-grade classroom faithfully reproduced by set designer Margaret McKowen, from the miniature chairs the audience members sit in to the posters of presidents past and present on the walls. It’s so real you can practically smell the dry-erase markers. Adams gives us very little backstory for either of the two characters onstage, but we soon learn that Corryn (Robin Walsh) is a parent coming to talk to her son’s teacher, Heather (Joey Parsons), after the latter sends a note home with 11-year-old Gidion.

Adams ekes out the story bit by bit, but the mood is immediately somber, and the surprise with which Heather greets Corryn’s arrival is a clue that all isn’t quite right at home. Superbly directed by Herendeen, the show has pathos and suspense in bucketloads, as the combative but charming Corryn and the prickly Heather go from allies to adversaries at the drop of a hat. Within a lean 80 minutes, the show raises profound questions about parenting and education and documents the gut-wrenching force of maternal loyalty.

The last play I saw was Barcelona, a 90-minute mystery of sorts about an American girl (Anne Marie Nest, as charming as she is an obnoxious cliché) who goes home with a Spanish man (Jason Manuel Olazabal) while on a bachelorette weekend in the Catalan city. Like Adams, Wohl offers reveals bit by bit, so much of the show feels authentically like getting to know a stranger. Olazabal’s character, Manuel, is handsome but positively sphinx-like in his reactions to the drunk, belligerent, crass Irene, who vomits in his bathroom, brags about her cushy real estate job, and attempts to perform a sexy dance to Puccini.

Needless to say, there’s more to Irene’s character, and Nest performs the metamorphosis fearlessly, going through a range of different emotional states as she begins to understand the roots of Manuel’s menace. Directed by Charles Morley, this is an alternately funny and gripping show, even if the final plot points feel far-fetched.

The two shows I didn’t see are Bob Clyman’s The Exceptionals, which explores a fertility program designed to create gifted children, and Evan M. Wiener’s Captors, based on the real-life interrogation of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann by Israeli Mossad agents. The festival runs through July 29, so there’s plenty of time to catch one or two shows, or even all five.

Tickets ($55 for a single show or $230 for a five-show pass) and more information are available via CATF’s website.