I've noticed a common thread among amateur playwrights, in general, that gets me cringing a bit at the thought of seeing a locally-written play - or, in the case of the one-acts for New Ground Theatre's 2014 Playwrights Festival, several locally-written plays, which I viewed on Saturday evening. All too often, I've found these writers struggle with dialogue, particularly in regard to writing phrases and conversations in a manner in which people actually speak. I'm happy to say, however, that this is not the case with New Ground's presentation, as all four of its playwrights manage to provide believable dialogue and discussions, removing from the equation the distraction of annoyingly obvious and unrealistic speech.
The festival is kicked off with author William Pepper's Calling Home, a short play about a wannabe inventor calling his wife and kids while away on an inventors' conference, and directed here by Jordan Smith. At first blush, I found it odd that there didn't seem to be a point to this piece, as Pepper didn't seem to be trying to drive home a particular message or lesson. Then it dawned on me that the absence of a moral to the story also meant the absence of pretense. Pepper isn't trying to force a point, nor is he working from the idea of a particular message and then attempting to cobble a scene around it. Instead, this is a slice-of-life look at a phone call home, and little more than that. Following a conversation between Bryan Lopez's Dan and Bryan Woods' Fred that sets up the convention location, Dan makes the titular call to wife Emily (Alaina Pascarella), who is feeding their two boys and picking up an overabundance of toys strewn across the living-room floor. What's beautiful about Pepper's writing is this phone conversation. While it rambles a bit and is filled with perhaps too much filler, it seems genuine in its ebbs and flows, with the familiar beginnings of a spousal discussion leading to some frustration at their situation (Dan's inventions are not yet moneymakers), leading to a sincere moment of relationship honesty between the two, suggested within the subtext of generic goodbyes.
Playwright Michael Carron's A Decent Interval follows, directed by Chris Jansen, and continuing what seemed to be the festival's family-relationship theme. In this piece, Cole McFarren's Anthony stops by to visit his aunt, Susan Perrin-Sallak's Beverly, and it's soon revealed that the "decent interval" of the title is the time between the play's present and the death of Anthony's wife two years prior. Anthony has just started dating again, and Carron's piece finds the ultra-conservative Christian Beverly opening up about what she truly thought of Anthony's slutty, sinning whore of a late wife and their decision to marry before a judge rather than in a church. If there's a weakness in Carron's writing, it's that he writes Beverly as a cliché and draws obvious lines between which character he thinks is "right" (Anthony) and which is "wrong" (Beverly). Though loving toward her nephew, Beverly exudes a cold, unrelenting conviction when it comes to her Catholic faith, coming across as condescending and judgmental - a caricature. (Then again, I've also known people, too many people, just like Beverly, so the character, while a cliché, is not an invalid one.) This isn't the point of Carron's one act, however, but rather a point related to it, as Beverly and Anthony - as family - are able to overlook their moral disagreements and remain loving toward each other.
Jansen also directs writer Shea Doyle's Well Done, a story of family tension centered on money. Doyle sets up a generation gap as Michael Carron's Robert and Tamra McConoughey's Karen await the arrival of their son (Neil Friberg's Jake) and his girlfriend (Shana Kulhavy's Melissa) for Thanksgiving, while Robert pontificates about his son's generation and its unrealistic approach to getting and doing the things they want in life. In Robert's time, as he says, if he wanted something, he worked hard to raise the money for it. His son, however, studied abroad in college (which Robert thought was a waste of time and an excuse to sleep with French women), and forsakes his accounting career to be a butcher, which requires an apprenticeship that not only doesn't pay, but costs money to fulfill. When Jake and Melissa arrive, Robert is proved right, in a sense, as the couple's main goal is to get Robert to loan them money; Melissa's work hours were just reduced, and they're unable to afford their apartment without help. This holiday visit eventually comes to verbal blows as generational attitudes regarding work collide, and Doyle, arguably, includes too much exposition in his piece. Though it's presented in natural conversation, he seems intent on covering all bases immediately, rather than allowing some important background points to reveal themselves along the way. (This is not a significant playwriting issue, but one present enough here to be a bit of a distraction.) What is truly compelling is the climax to his story, an unexpected twist that involves relationship secrets and wraps up Doyle's one-act in appealing fashion.
New Ground's 2014 Playwrights Festival ends with writer Joshua Malone's Memory, directed by Christina Myatt, and featuring Greg Bouljon as Samuel - a father suffering memory loss akin to Alzheimer's disease - and Creighton Olsen as his son Ben. For me the most stirring piece of the evening, Malone's Memory focuses on the burden of memory loss on the family members of the afflicted. As Ben arrives to visit his father, he's faced again and again with Samuel's forgetfulness, which varies from not remembering that he asked Ben to throw out partially-consumed water bottles to mistaking Ben for his other son, Mitch. (Samuel's memory is far gone, with his short-term memory almost non-existent, and Ben must tell his father that he's Ben, not Mitch, just moments after already explaining that very thing.) This process repeats itself as Malone's script and Olsen's portrayal slowly reveal the toll that Samuel's affliction is taking on Ben. And while there seems to be some unnecessary filler in their conversation, the story is effectively told, and Malone's emotional point is clearly made in what could easily be fleshed out into a much longer piece, if not its own full-length play.
The 2014 Playwrights Festival runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through May 11, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting NewGroundTheatre.org.