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Fest of playwrights is stage of growth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. -- The exploitation of Marilyn Monroe, Mary Todd Lincoln's commitment to an insane asylum, venal get-rich schemes and unfulfilled longing. These are the subjects of the four plays mounted by Shepherdstown's Contemporary American Theater Festival for its 10th anniversary season.

Although the results are varied, the breadth of themes, styles, settings and subject matter offers an encouraging indication of the imaginative and intellectual range of modern American playwrights.

Shepherding new plays is the mission of the Shepherdstown festival, which has produced 38 plays over the past decade, including 11 world premieres. The playwrights have ranged from relative unknowns to such established writers as John Patrick Shanley (screenwriter of "Moonstruck") and Joyce Carol Oates, whose third festival play, "Miss Golden Dreams," is one of three world premieres this summer. The others are Catherine Filloux's "Mary & Myra" and Sheri Wilner's "Hunger."

Richard Dresser's "Something in the Air" isn't a premiere, although the playwright rewrote the first act for this production, the standout of the festival. A Shepherdstown veteran, Dresser has had two previous plays produced here, "Below the Belt" and "Gun-Shy." Both received subsequent off-Broadway runs, and "Something in the Air" is a strong contender to continue the trend.

After tackling corporate power struggles and divorce, the acerbic playwright has now turned his attention to the survival of the greediest, a subject that, judging from the popularity of such TV shows as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor," has become a national obsession.

Out of work and out of hope, Walker, an Everyman figure played by Lee Sellars with a mixture of innocence and desperation, takes his troubles to an analyst named Neville, only to discover that Neville is not a psychoanalyst but a financial analyst. However, Neville -- played by Michael Goodwin as a slick, amoral wheeler-dealer -- has a proposition that Walker decides will do him more good than therapy. (Think "Faust," with a devil named "Neville.")

Neville's business is selling the life insurance policies of terminally ill patients who change their beneficiary in exchange for some upfront cash. He hooks Walker up with his most terminal prospect, Cram, a travel agent who contracted a fatal disease on a safari.

Neville assures Walker this is the safest investment he'll ever make. But unlike buying stock in an unseen corporation, this is an investment with a human face, and, as played by scowling, antagonistic Anderson Matthews, a none-too-pretty face at that. Cram's unlikability should help quiet Walker's qualms, but when Walker decides to make the man's last days on Earth as pleasant -- and as short -- as possible, his efforts backfire.

Dresser writes with a deliciously dark comic sensibility, and director Ed Herendeen (the festival's founder and producing director) matches it with appropriate over-the-top, film noir-style staging. Although "Something in the Air" has an unexpectedly sweet ending, it puts Walker's desires in perspective in this creepy morality tale for our avaricious times.

*

While Dresser is adept at taking the pulse of the present, two other festival playwrights look to the past to show how little has changed. Filloux's "Mary & Myra" examines the public perception of first ladies and women lawyers. And though the specific situation Filloux depicts is an extreme case, it's not without modern-day parallels.

The time is 1875, and Mary Todd Lincoln, widowed 10 years earlier by the assassination of her husband, has been committed to a sanatorium by her first-born and sole surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln. Fighting for her release is a friend, Myra Bradwell, founder of the Chicago Legal News, and one of America's first woman lawyers, though she was denied the right to practice because of her gender.

Baltimore actress Rosemary Knower is exemplary as Lincoln, intermingling the woman's rage and her child-like exuberance until the line between sanity and insanity begins to blur -- one of the play's themes. Knower leaves no doubt that Mary Todd Lincoln was a troubled, and at times difficult, woman, but she also earns our understanding and sympathy.

As the younger, more dynamic Bradwell, however, Babo Harrison is more a 1970s than an 1870s woman, gesturing and speaking too brashly even for a woman ahead of her time. Harrison's jarring performance detracts from the interplay between the two women, draining much of the punch from the otherwise satisfying final scene in which Lincoln, who hews to the old-fashioned dictum that "a woman's place is in the home," and career-driven Bradwell find common ground.

Part of the problem lies in the writing. In Mary Todd Lincoln, Filloux has found a feisty historical figure whose life lends itself readily to high drama, and the scenes when she and Bradwell are at loggerheads are the play's best. But the role of Lincoln is far better developed than that of Bradwell, who is depicted primarily as a relentless crusader.

Granted, one of Bradwell's ardent crusades was trying to stop women from being locked in asylums simply because men found them troublesome. It's an important and often overlooked chapter in the history of women's rights. But when "Mary & Myra" stresses history and issues instead of characters, it veers dangerously toward the educational instead of the theatrical stage.

*

Unlike Mary Todd Lincoln, who found herself shunted out of the public eye, Marilyn Monroe was unable to step out of the spotlight. Oates based "Miss Golden Dreams" on the same subject as her 738-page novel, "Blonde," released in April.

The play, however, focuses solely on the adult Monroe and some of the more famous episodes in her life. A broadcast voice introduces each of the play's five short acts: "The Ex-Athlete and the Blonde Actress," "The Playwright and the Blonde Actress," etc. Although the identity of the characters is hardly a secret, Oates' use of titles instead of proper names emphasizes the iconic status of these well-known celebrities. The production's most charming scene, that of Monroe and Joe DiMaggio on their first date, punctuated by flashbulbs, is like watching a pair of bubbly American gods dining on Olympus.

But ballplayers and movie stars are not gods, and in depicting Monroe's eventual disintegration, Oates is attempting to show how a troubled girl named Norma Jeane Baker was smothered by the larger-than-life mantle that Hollywood, the tabloid press and the public forced her to wear. This notion takes concrete form in the last -- and best -- scene, when, with the help of a monumental prop by set designer Markas Henry, Monroe's image crashes down on her.

For the most part, however, "Miss Golden Dreams" is inconsistently written by Oates and inconsistently staged by Herendeen. Several scenes involve familiar images: Monroe standing on the steam grate in "The Seven Year Itch" or singing "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy. These scenes suggest that the play is a series of snapshots, but this suggestion is not carried through.

Instead, the play's structure comes across as choppy. And the act in which the character of the jealous Playwright hounds his wife about an affair strips Monroe and third husband Arthur Miller of dignity.

The production also has performance problems. As Monroe, Stacey Leigh Ivey effectively conveys the movie star's aura, but she speaks so indistinctly, much of her dialogue is lost, and Anderson Matthews is totally miscast as Kennedy, appearing much too old and smarmy for the charismatic role.

A larger problem is that the play adds little to the vast amount that's already been written -- including a number of other plays -- about Monroe. In her novel, "Blonde," Oates provides a detailed analysis of Norma Jeane's personality. In "Miss Golden Dreams," she zeroes in on one of the book's themes -- that Monroe was just a role Norma Jeane played, a role that destroyed her. It's a theme ideally suited to the stage, but one that, as realized here, feels merely glossed over.

*

The festival's fourth offering is its least naturalistic and shortest (one hour) -- short enough to be a one-act. Wilner's "Hunger" is about immense longing and what would happen if that longing were fulfilled.

On the night in which a young woman named Diana (Ivey again) has accepted her boyfriend's marriage proposal, she is suddenly beset with bottomless hunger, despite having eaten an enormous meal. Diana worries that she has a disease; her boyfriend (Greg Baglia) worries that she is going mad.

Restless and unable to sleep, Diana ventures out of the Nantucket bungalow where they are staying. While wandering along the beach, she is surprised by a stranger (Reese Madigan) who has mysteriously emerged from the sea bearing platters of seafood. He has the means to fulfill not only her hunger, but also her larger, more amorphous longing. Diana is intrigued, but scared.

Wilner has written a be- careful-what-you-wish-for fable, a lesson that affects all three of its characters. Greg Leaming directs her gentle tale with humor and grace, and the Asian-inspired fabric panels in designer Henry's set are a lovely way of depicting the changeable sea.

"Hunger," however, while delightfully whimsical and breezily written, is ultimately too slight. It's a play about longing that longs for a companion piece.

Contemporary American Theater Festival

What: Four plays in rotating repertory

Where: Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W. Va., about 85 miles west of Baltimore

When: Wednesdays through Sundays, through July 30

Tickets: $20 and $25

Call: 800-999-2283 for show times

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