CATF continues to conjure the curious
“Yankee Tavern” has been favored by Shepherd students who earn Culture Points for catching a CATF play this July. The Steven Dietz drama, directed by adroit Liesl Tommy, is set in a tavern that bears a resemblance to our Stonewall’s below Tony’s in Shepherdstown. Go and see that there’s no window but opportunity aplenty to drink in the crowd of unknowing. Well, “Yankee Tavern” will play with your head too and leave you conspiring to rid the world of conspiracies. Or else leave you reveling in them . . .
It’s a play with loose ends that are the stuff of each life, each history. Unanswered questions abound: Was the walk on the moon filmed on earth? Did Lincoln inseminate war for some sinister reason? Could Kleenex create a new pollen? Did JFK’s death plant a seed of distrust in our own common senses? Does 9-11 hurt us more since being spun into conspiratorial outtakes? Dietz has created a character, a barfly named Ray (warm and wonderful Anderson Matthews), whose purpose in life is to expound such conspiracies that swirl around us and around the U.S. He’s broke but ebullient. Listen when he lectures on the “war on terror” and says this lets us “box with anxiety” forever.
His patient young friends Janet (Anne Marie Nest) and Adam (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are in love, engaged. They plan to sell the historic family tavern and disengage from the ghosts upstairs (with whom Ray regularly confers). “The dead don’t have a clue!” says Ray, so he keeps the late tenants informed. Do the living have a clue? Gradually the tavern air of friendly disbelief begins to break down. A mysterious patron Palmer (John Lescault) speaks up less sparingly as stage reality starts to ape artful fantasies.
The Dietz play suggests how deeper fears, though masked, may affect folks who must live each day outside the lines of a finished script. Thus “Yankee Tavern” gives us an unfinished fable, a frisson (French for shiver); events will unfold to a music of mundane mysteries that envelop. Love will let us skirt ghosts of despair unless we find them too engrossing.
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Speaking of loose ends, Victor Lodato’s “Dear Sara Jane” gives us a woman’s divisive vigil of waiting for her husband’s return from war. Sara Jane (Joey Parsons) seems a sprightly young woman whose nerves are strung too tightly with longing. She speaks to the audience as if we’re houseguests and explains her family’s heritage of military service. She speaks too of a troubled sister and of a mother having facelifts. Sara Jane sips wine and spirits as the weather outside her sunroom varies calm with storms and even sounds of war.
Ms. Parsons’ performance is a tripwire triumph and more. Shyly Sara Jane reveals domestic secrets that touch on touching; she tries to make light of gathering global darkness whose shadows start back home. She laments war’s torture and torment, identifies with victims. As she arranges daisies, she announces, “Roses are not innocent.” Later she seems to apologize yet seek solidarity or solace when stating to the theater-in-the-near-round crowd, “You have your own chaos.”
Night comes on with changes. Light magic by Patrick Wallace and sound tricks by Christina Smith enhance the mood of Margaret McKowen’s set and costumes. An apt modern-gothic mood is conjured up in Shepherd’s new Center for the Contemporary Arts building. Director Ed Herendeen gives Lodato’s script plenty of stage gusto.
Impressive Joey Parsons in the title role is not alone; two handsome uniformed servicemen (Chris and Steve Pritchard) mutely guard her person. She needs these phantom heartthrobs. Sara Jane has waited months for her man’s return, and the strain on her has turned to strains of song – in what the program calls a “mix of metaphysical stand-up and mad cabaret.” Indeed Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Edgar Allan Poe would love the artful mix served up in “Dear Sara Jane.” It’s a must-see for my students of American Lit and for all lovers of theater’s mad embrace.