Saturday, July 26, 2014

5 Plays with Humanist Issues

by Gary Berg-Cross

It’s mid-summer and like classical Greek days some of the best takes on humanist issues are on display in plays. I’m thinking in particular about Contemporary American Theatre Festival’s (CATF) summer season that runs till August 3 in Shepherdstown, WV.  As in prior years 5 new plays are offered:

1.     North of Boulevard (Vanishing middle class and ethics)
2.     One Night by Charles Fuller (a play about two Iraqi War veterans, drifters, both PTSD victims)
3.     Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons (Conversing with a robot)
4.     Dead and Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson  (Can Carolyn, a wealthy black widow dying by inches of cancer, persuade Veronika, her at-home hospice nurse, to kill her?  How does Veronika's  religion influence her decision?)
The blurb for this play described it this way:
"Full of surprises, this hilarious exploration into mortality and morality tests the boundaries of faith and forgiveness, prejudice and pridefulness, when the stakes are nothing short of life… and death."
5.     The Ashes Under Gait City (World premier) by Christina Anderson (prejudice in an Oregon town –see review)
As you can see each of them has an interesting topic. People seemed to like One Night despite the obviously dark topic.  I would have liked to see Uncanny Valley a futurist AI story about robot consciousness and it consequences. But, I was able to see my 2nd choice -playwright Bruce Graham’s “North Of The Boulevard" (CATF founder Ed Herendeen directs). 

It’s a morality play in an auto-repair garage (with 1 auto that never does get repaired) on the wrong side of the tracks.  Well the Boulevard in this version features blue collar Americans in a town with decaying businesses. Think of Richmond on a smaller scale.  It captures the idea that much of middle class America seems on the wrong side of top 3% America. The season is Christmas and there is some plastic tree decorating to do with whatever kindness is left. From the dialog we are scrapping off kindness from the bottom of the garage barrel.  Three childhood friends - Trip the garage owner, Bear a security guard & dim witted Zee kick around failed dreams amidst memories of high school athletic fame. Zee’s irreverent & crusty father provides some of the family drama. He’s been hardened up by life and has escaped into the garage and his last place of refuge counting on Trip’s kindness.
 All four lives bounce off crumbling walls in the fading light of day.
Little corruptions seem a routine part of their lives, but what if there is a way for the 3 buddies to share in a big, but unethical and illegal, win in casino America?  As individuals and a group can they convince themselves to take the gamble in order to achieve a new life for themselves and their families?  Or shall they walk away from the temptation?
It feels a bit like a 21st century "Death of a Salesman" and one is reminded of some thoughts from that great work as failure, hope and opportunity collide in fading American dreams: 

      “'s better for a man just to walk away.
      But if you can't walk away?
     I guess that's when it's tough.” 

     “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.” 
― Arthur MillerDeath of a Salesman

It’s not a philosophy course in ethics, but it could serve to kick off some of the classroom discussion.

You might give it or one of the other plays a try.

CATF puts on a full range of festivals within the festival.  They have art exhibits on display at the Shepherd University campus, but also a "Humanities at the Festival"  that features a series of free lectures, stage readings, post-show discussions, thematic classes, and what they call “late-night salons.” The Saturday lectures are free and Sunday shows after 6 are about half price.

Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$59,, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473

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