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Be still my heart … theater and chocolate

By Staff | Mar 2, 2012

I ate a stale peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in the car. It was supposed to be my husband’s lunch a day earlier, but he forgot it in the fridge and rather than let it go to waste, it became my dinner. The evening wasn’t going to be about food for me. It was going to be about culture.

And, anyway, I was headed toward some of the world’s best movie-theater popcorn. Ed Herendeen and his staff were using the Opera House Theater to present a preview of the upcoming season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University. A dry sandwich would be much improved with a fresh popcorn chaser.

And oh! Be still my heart! Chocolate.

At the entrance to the theater sat a basket of custom chocolate bars made by DiFleuris in Martinsburg to resemble the theater festival logo. Each audience member got one. So I had a main course, a vegetable and dessert. Sounds like a fine meal.

This will be the 22nd season of the theater festival, started by Herendeen to showcase new American works. In its first season, the festival produced two plays. Now there are five, as well as staged readings, speakers, events and new this year, a program for teenagers that brings live theater to young audiences. Called The Hostel Youth, it will showcase plays that are accessible to ages 14 to 18, to “fill a niche that has been untouched,” Herendeen said. The idea is to inculcate a love of live theater into the next generation.

Plays that premiered in Shepherdstown have gone on to success at the highest levels. Right now on Broadway is “Stick Fly,” a piece that began at the festival in 2008. And after Herendeen’s announcements, theater owner Larry Cumbo treated the audience to a screening of “The Ides of March,” a George Clooney film based on “Farragut North,” a play produced at the festival in 2009 and adapted for the screen.

A capacity crowd entered the theater to see a photo montage from seasons past as keyboardist Bob Strain provided music. Later, as Herendeen announced each upcoming play, Strain produced a few bars of appropriate musical accompaniment.

“Can you give me a little tango,” Herendeen asked, by way of introducing “Barcelona,” which Herendeen called “a sexy new American play.” A carefree one-night stand for an American tourist in Spain becomes complicated in “a play with a huge message,” Herendeen said.

Goth music was the introduction to “Gideon’s Knot,” which takes themes of childhood bullying, authoritarian censorship and parental responsibility and intertwines them.

The sweetly familiar “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was Herendeen’s musical suggestion to introduce “The Exceptionals,” a dark comedy about designer children. A strictly rigid march beat was the music for “Captors,” a staged examination of the 1960 Israeli capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann in Argentina, which will be produced in the 50th-anniversary year of Eichmann’s execution for war crimes. Finishing the season will be “In a Forest Dark and Deep,” for which Herendeen suggested the audience “think Hansel and Gretel for adults.”

The festival continues to expand, not only in programming but in reach. Attendance last year was up 15 percent and the reputation of the festival offers Herendeen access to both established, top playwrights and new voices. Herendeen repeated the philosophy that access to culture is the attraction that keeps cities vibrant, and the astonishing truth that the oldest town in West Virginia continues to produce the newest theater in America.

I confess, I spied lots of leftover chocolate bars in the basket when the movie ended and the crowd left the theater. So I swiped a couple more for a treat in the car on the way home. Call it an after-dinner digestive.