SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- On a long, hot July weekend there are many ways to keep cool in West Virginia's oldest town -- five of them can be found on the campus of Shepherd University, where the Contemporary American Theater Festival of new and developing plays is in its 23rd season.
The town is a treasure trove for Civil War buffs and during July, it also attracts adventurous theater-goers from the Washington, D.C., area and intrepid visitors from places such as Pittsburgh. Leaving from the city, it was a mostly high-speed drive of about 3 1/2 hours last week, when I attended the festival and the conference there held by the American Theater Critics Association.
Each year, five plays emerge from dozens presented as possibilities, and among those chosen few, it seems unlikely that one would run up against concurrent plays with the same theme. Perhaps there was dark magic afoot in 2013, because that's just what happened this season, which brought the world premiere of "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World," an imagining of the fate of Abigail Williams, based on a book about the 1692 "Salem witchcraft crisis."
If that sounds familiar, you may recall that Pittsburgh's City Theatre ended its season with "Abigail/1702," Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's play that also conjured a future for witch-accuser Williams, who disappeared mysteriously both from history and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
"Isn't that weird?" said Ed Herendeen, the founder and producing director of the CATF, when asked about the coincidence. "I called Tracy [Brigden, City's artistic director] as soon as I realized it. And there's a third one out there, 'The Afflicted,' about the same thing!"
Knowing the others exist did not deter Mr. Herendeen. A producer willing to confront political and social issues head-on, he insists he has no rules when he enters the process, and the festival's history of diverse new plays bears that out.
The 2013 season that ends Sunday further shows the wide range offered by the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which includes stage readings at Shepherdstown's historic Opera House. Here's a bit about each of the five productions, in the order I saw them from Wednesday through Saturday last week (find a full schedule at catf.org/schedule). All of the plays have adult content, some contain nudity:
• "Modern Terrorism" by Jon Kern, directed by Mr. Herendeen (Marinoff Theater). The play by "The Simpson's" writer had a first production at Second Stage in New York and had a divisive effect on audience members last weekend, much as the Rolling Stone cover of the Boston bomber has led to a heated debate.
Written before the Boston Marathon atrocities, the play shows three would-be terrorists -- a woman whose husband was killed in a drone attack, a glory seeker and a disaffected young man named Rahim -- sending Rahim to the Empire State Building as an underwear bomber. Their ineptitude makes for comedy that's both poignant and uncomfortable, and the appearance of a slacker neighbor furthers their struggles.
Rahim, played winningly by Omar Maskati, is a "Star Wars" fan who loves his collectibles and suffers crises of conviction about being a suicide bomber, while his American friend expresses his own problems with the U.S. and Wall Street in particular. All but one scene takes place in an apartment in Brooklyn, where the plotters make their plans and try to avoid contact with neighbors.
A post-show discussion with the cast revealed that Mr. Kern was inspired to write about lone-wolf terrorists such as the failed underwear and shoe bombers and the Time Square car bomber -- people living among us, not in a compound a world away. Mr. Kern's program essay discusses "the privatization of jihad," a provocative subject that here is rendered with jokes and jolts. Interpretations of Mr. Kern's treatment appeared to be polarizing, just as you'd expect when the subject is "Modern Terrorism."
• "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah" written and directed by Mark St. Germain (Marinoff Theater). The writer of "Freud's Last Session" offered the most accessible of the plays on the CATF slate, a visit by Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, based on their letters to each other and "conflicting reports" that they met in 1936 while Fitzgerald was in Hollywood. Hemingway was at the height of his success, while down-on-his-luck Fitzgerald was trying to make it as a screenwriter and fretting about his institutionalized wife, Zelda.
Rod Brogan as Hem and Joey Collins as Scott fit the mold of what we think of the two writers, one robust and bullish; the other more comfortable delivering a punchline than a punch. Hemingway bursts into the quarters where Fitzgerald is working with a secretary for "Mr. Mayer" to finish a script and trying to quit drinking. The men enter into a roller-coaster night of "to drink or not to drink?" (mostly, Hem drinks -- a lot) and hurled accusations, with tough-as-nails Miss Montaigne (Angela Pierce) trying to get Scott back to work.
"Scott and Hem" doesn't break new ground but it's fun to feel like a fly on the wall observing two of 20th-century America's greatest novelists. The leads are among the actors who perform here in rep; both also appear in the next play on the list. She has a scene at the end that gives the play surprising depth.
• "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World" by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Kent Nicholson (Frank Center Stage). The play reintroduces Abigail Williams years after the Salem witch trials, on the day she has stopped in her wanderings to visit fellow finger-pointer Mercy Lewis. Abigail is attempting to make sense of her role in the deaths of the accused witches but instead, she finds herself accused and prosecuted by Mercy, her servant Rebekkah and two witless visitors, one a shady reverend. Into the scene walks a stranger, John Fox, who resembles the assemblages' idea of the devil, and he, too, stands accused of evil intent.
The play has drawn-out scenes -- Rebekkah interpreting a performance of "Macbeth," the ridiculous trial and a prolonged night on the roof for Abigail and Fox -- that hopefully will be condensed as the play is further developed. Whatever its merits, I couldn't get past comparisons to City's "Abigail/1702" and this current fascination with the redemption of Abigail Williams.
• "H2O" by Jane Martin, directed by Jon Jory (Center for the Arts Building I black box). This is the play that had us all talking and, after 90 minutes, feeling nearly as battered emotionally as the two actors onstage. Diane Mair as Deborah, who believes she has reconciled her calling to be an actress with her devotion to Christianity. Her faith is sorely tested by Jake (Alex Podulke), a brooding movie star who she saves from a suicide attempt.
Self-destructive Jake has a big problem with whether to be or not to be, but no one around him wants to hear about the struggles of a guy making millions as a film star. Deborah is frightened by and attracted to this Hollywood bad boy. He's reaching out, hoping she can save him from himself, but dealing with someone as needy as Jake is more than she ever bargained for.
Jake's self-loathing makes his success a burden he can't bear, so how does he try to justify his superstar status? -- a New York production of "Hamlet." He cajoles Deborah into being his Ophelia, and their Shakepearean fates are sealed.
The two actors perform an intense, raw dance of seduction and denial that is a modern parallel to that of Hamlet and Ophelia, made all the more exhausting by the intimacy of the 90-seat black box theater. This world premiere of "H2O" is a commission of the CATF and the buzz caused an added performance, at 2 p.m. Friday. If you're going, be prepared for a workout.
• "Heartless" by Sam Shepard, directed by Ed Herendeen (Frank Center Stage). When this play was first produced by Signature Theatre in NYC last year, The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote, "As much as any American playwright, Mr. Shepard understands that every family is insane in its own special way." In "Heartless," the acclaimed writer of "True West" and "Buried Child" introduces a family of formidable women and the man who thinks he has found a refuge, only to discover he has wandered into a "Hotel California"-like trap.
Kathleen Butler as a paralyzed matriarch prone to outrageous chatter and Michael Cullen as Roscoe, a displaced married professor who follows her daughter home, breathe life into their characters, while the younger generation is more nebulous. Heart-transplant patient Sally (Robyn Cohen) first appears to us nude, exposing her long torso scar, while her sister, Lucy (Cassie Beck), is buttoned-down and put-upon as a caretaker, except for the fact that mom has a nurse, the mysterious Liz (Susannah Hoffman, who also played Abigail). As Sally's discomfort with being kept alive by someone else's heart becomes obvious, the proceedings grow ever more surreal. A lot of unpleasantness is volleyed around in clever ways, but to what purpose? I'm still not sure.
Of particular interest to Pittsburghers may be the evolution of the playwright, whose "True West," about the rivalry between two estranged brothers, is coming to Pittsburgh Public Theater next season.
The CATF schedule runs through Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit catf.org.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960