Re: Plays: A Little Festival in West Virginia Presents Big New Plays, While a New York Theater Company Stages a Rare Drama by John O'Hara. (Arts)

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The nationally acclaimed Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) has kicked off its 12th season in Shepherdstown, W.Va., with four new plays, including works by renowned dramatists Sam Shepard and Lee Blessing. "The future of the American theater is in the production of new plays," says producing director Ed Herendeen, "and that's what CATF is all about."

Herendeen, who formerly ran the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires, founded CATF in 1991 at Shepherd College, where he is a member of the faculty. By 1995, the company was offering four new Equity productions per season, a pace it still maintains, augmented now by workshops and musical events.

This kind of schedule usually is available "only in large urban areas," says Herendeen, but the CATF audience "has an adventurous taste, and many of them come long distances to see all four plays." All the new dramas open during the festival's first weekend and rotate throughout the monthlong event, which runs until Aug. 4. (For more information, go to the festival's Website, www.catf.org.)

Headlining the new season is the mid-Atlantic premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. Directed by Herendeen and set in the American West, Shepard's play concerns the struggle of two brothers who come to terms with the death of their father and with memories of their own volatile past. "Shepard has often been a critic of the American family," says Herendeen, and The Late Henry Moss marks yet another installment in his ongoing saga.

Memories likewise are an important element in Lee Blessing's Thief River, also directed by Herendeen. Written for the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in 2000, the play explores the relationship of two men and their families in a rural Minnesota community and their buried secrets. One of America's most distinguished playwrights, Blessing has won the American Theatre Critics Award. New York's Signature Theater once devoted an entire season to his work.

Rounding out the festival's dramatic offerings are two world-premiere plays by relative newcomers to the theater scene. Drafts of both Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water and Catherine Filloux's Silence of God were given open readings at last year's event, and their full-blown premieres this year offer further evidence of the festival's commitment not only to presenting new plays but to developing them.

Orange Flower Water again deals with family matters--this time through a story of an extramarital affair. Silence of God, however, explores an entirely different subject. Filloux's work focuses on mass murderer Poi Pot and the destruction of Cambodia. Filloux reconstructs the dictator's thoughts and background through the device of an interview conducted by a fictional female reporter on the eve of his death.

Commissioned by CATF, the work marks another step forward for a playwright who is not afraid of controversy. Filloux's Mary and Myra--the feminist retelling of Mary Todd Lincoln's commitment to an insane asylum by her son --was one of the highlights of the 2000 festival. "It's a play of light and dark" says Filloux of Silence of God, "an exploration of how evil can flourish in almost any environment."

Of French and Algerian background, Filloux is accustomed to exploring Third World issues. She initially was inspired to write the play when she encountered Cambodian women so horrified by Poi Pot's butchery they psychosomatically lost their sight, a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder. …