What To Expect From This Year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF)

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Ah, summer – that fabled time of fireflies and lemonade stands, seersucker suits with wilting collars, tubing along a quiet stream, and of course — theatre.   

Live theatre.  The kind of stuff that fills your mind with new ideas and experiences like you’ve never had before.

In what has long since become a beloved rite of summer, this July the Contemporary American Theatre Festival (CATF) returns for another brilliant season with six new American plays.  Each production is either a world premiere or a local premiere; with provocative themes both historic and contemporary, CATF is well worth the brief drive out of town to see ‘em.

What’s wonderful about the CATF is that it has three uniquely-configured performance spaces, each with its own special vibe, and each of which will host a pair of shows in rotating repertory.  So you’ll get to see actors work in a variety of contexts, engaging audiences in completely different ways from one play to the next.

The main proscenium stage, The Frank Center, will host Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, a play torn from the headlines (and the Supreme Court docket) about faith, identity, and, well, weddings.  Sharing the Frank Center Stage will be Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, written by local Maryland playwright D. W. Gregory.  Memoirs is set in the Soviet Union of Stalin’s day, and is based on a true story of a man born with the gift of verbatim memory—fortunate in any other place and time, but a curse for anyone living in a totalitarian state.  If you enjoyed Armando Ianucci’s brilliantly dark comedy, The Death of Stalin (still playing at the E Street Cinema, folks!) you might want to catch Gregory’s version of the darker side of Communism.

If you like your performances in the round, there’s the Marinoff Theater which this year hosts The House on the Hill, Amy E. Witting’s taut new drama with an intense family reunion at its heart—as well as life-changing past trauma, and a child in tow.  Witting, recently an artist-in-residence at New York’s Abingdon Theatre Company, is an emerging artist whose work is gaining recognition up and down the east coast.  Sharing the Marinoff is Thirst, C. A. Johnson’s dystopian vision of a future in which water means everything—perhaps more than anything else.

Meanwhile, the more intimate black box space of Studio 112 hosts Angelica Chéri’s Berta, Berta, a drama set in the 1920’s, inspired by one of the most famous prison songs recorded by Alan Lomax in the deep south as a part of his Folklore Collection.  And last but not least, Michael Weller returns to CATF with a one-man show, A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan; like Chéri’s play, Late Morning appeals to America’s complicated past, by focusing on one of our most admired and reviled presidents in his twilight years, as Alzheimer’s closes in and begins to wreak havoc with his memory and personality.

Nestled in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the Contemporary American Theatre festival has attracted discerning theatre-goers for decades, and this year’s lineup is enduring proof of theatre’s relevance to our complex world.  The town itself has charms to fill the hours you’ll spend between shows. There’s a vinyl shop, Thai delicacies, scruffy coffee houses, a cozy but ample bookstore—but my personal favorite is the Devonshire Arms, a pub where you can watch sports over a pint of good ale or enjoy a fully-decked high tea, with scones and finger sandwiches hand-made by the owner herself.

For one month every summer, Shepherdstown becomes a mecca for innovative ideas and compelling stories.  Make your plans now, and I’ll hope to see you there!

The 2018 Contemporary American Theater Festival runs July 6-29 on the campus of Shepherd University – 92 West Campus Drive, in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For tickets call 800-999-CATF (2283) or go online.