The cast of Easy Prey
The cast of Easy Prey
Go to downtown Dayton and you'll find some fanciful sculptures. There's one of the planes that Wilbur and Orville Wright flew -- in North Carolina, yes, but the boys made their newfangled invention in this neck of the woods. Even more fun are the tributes to three inventions made by Daytonians: the cash register, the ice cube tray, and the pop-top can.

But, one day, there just has to be a sculpture down here commemorating FutureFest, the Dayton Playhouse's annual celebration of new plays that just marked its 12th anniversary. Each year, Nancy Campbell, Harvey Damaser, and plenty of others plow through new scripts -- 377 this year -- and decide which are worth producing at the festival that takes place at Dayton's community theater each July. Three of the winning shows get staged readings, while three others get full productions -- one performance each.

The plays are finally unfurled in front of five judges. Helen Sneed, Eleanor Speert, and my Theatermania colleague David Finkle were back this year along with me, and we were joined by newcomer Kirsten Childs, author of the terrific The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. (I'd never met her before, and was anxious to. On April 1, she and I had made arrangements by phone to meet on April 8; but my mother died on April 7, so I was off to Boston and forgot all about the appointment. When I returned to town and realized my gaffe, I called Kirsten, got her machine, and apologized. The next day, flowers arrived -- from Kirsten Childs. Some friends I've known for 20, 30, even 40 years didn't send anything, but this extraordinary woman I'd never even met sure did.)

FutureFest began on Friday night with Jim Gustafson's Too Good to Say Good-Bye, about a pulp novelist whose characters are so alive to him that they live in his apartment with him. All worry about their creator, for he's been in a funk since his wife died some years ago and none of their stories have been finished, so they're stuck in the room -- at least until their master meets a fan who not only falls in love with him but starts seeing his characters, too.

Marsha Estell's Heat
Marsha Estell's Heat
Saturday brought Linda Escalera Baggs' Silent Heroes, in which six Marine wives hear that one of their husbands has been killed in a plane crash and each waits to see which man won't return; Marsha Estell's Heat, wherein three generations of women in an African-American family compare their experiences; and Robert Koon's Vintage Red and the Dust of the Road, in which a successful photographer (marvelously played by Ray Geiger) returns to the Napa Valley and the wine business he left, to the fury of his neglected family.

Sunday introduced The Rocker, Adrienne Earle Pender's new take on King Lear, in which Ginny and Rachel wind up betraying multi-millionaire Owen to cash in on his cash while daughter Del is cut out of the will because she won't tell him what he wants to hear. Finally, there was Dave Bates' Easy Prey, in which Gloria Archer, a once-famous Broadway actress now relegated to Off-Off-Broadway believes this new play by Sally Jo Jenkins will take her back to the top. Part of the fun for Gloria is making sure that she intimidates her producer, director, and -- of course -- her playwright, whom she assumes will be "easy prey." Not at all, especially in the way Jenkins was played by Annie Pesch, who's quickly become one of my favorite actresses in the country. She's only 20, but I've seen her for the last few years do splendidly with adolescent parts; now she's playing adults, and doing equally worthy work.

Annie's mother Fran Pesch, magnificently played one of the Marine wives in Silent Heroes, but they're not the only family members working at FutureFest. Saul Caplan directed Vintage Red; his daughter Sarah assisted him and stage-managed all the shows. Is the moral of this story that "the family that does plays together stays together?" Not necessarily, but even divorce doesn't rend some people asunder. Once-married Jim and Dodie Lockwood still act at the playhouse; each did superbly in (respectively) Easy Prey and Silent Heroes. Ditto their daughter Jennifer in Vintage Red.

If there's any doubt that Daytonians behind the scenes go the extra mile: In Easy Prey there was a reference to "an all-nude production of Our Town" and a musical version of The Brothers Karamazov, so the FutureFesters had posters designed, drawn, and printed for both mythical productions. ("Our Town: All Singing! All Dancing! All Gay!" read a hot pink window card.) The troupe also created T-shirts celebrating the festival, with each playwright's play and name emblazoned on them.

FutureFest audience are extremely appreciative: the house, with its 200-plus seats, sells out. (One Floridian travels hundreds of miles to spend some of her vacation at FutureFest each year.) And the audience is amazingly attentive. Even when a show encounters a dry patch where theatergoers could not be faulted for losing interest, these people are listening keenly, as is proved by their sudden laughter en masse at a joke that comes out of the blue. They applaud most every blackout, too.

And the winner was...Silent Heroes, which had one of the more startling scenes I'd seen in months. Soon after Patsy, whose husband was physically abusing her, found that he had survived -- to our dismay -- only two women were left. June had already been widowed once by Marine activities and knew that she might face the same fate again. "I don't want to hear 'Taps' again! I don't want another flag!" she roared; then she ran over to the American and Marine flags that were standing on poles, yanked them out of their holders, and threw them on the ground in fury.

FutureFest winner Silent Heroes
FutureFest winner Silent Heroes
Baggs received a $1,000 prize. (The other playwrights didn't go home empty-handed, but received $100 each). I was glad for Baggs for another reason: She's the daughter of a Marine colonel who attended a reading of this play eight months ago, was offended by what he perceived to be anti-American sentiments, and stopped talking to his daughter. The two still haven't reconciled, but I hope word gets to him so he can see how wrong he is. And I hope that the play gets out there so you, too, can feel its power.

As Helen Sneed told the crowd at the end of FutureFest, "Someone here asked me if my brain was tired and I told her, 'No, because what I use most here is my heart.'" Playwrights are the greatest beneficiaries of the festival, though. When I met Adrienne Earle Pender at Dayton International Airport's baggage claim on Friday afternoon, I told her, "You are about to be treated as a queen." On Sunday night, she told me that's exactly how she felt.

Okay, playwrights: You have until October 31 to submit one or more of your original bound scripts that have never before been produced anywhere (readings don't count against you, though). Include a title page containing the play's name, your name, mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address. Also include a résumé and send it all to Dayton Playhouse, FutureFest 2003, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton, OH 45414. Next May, you just might hear that you're one of the six lucky playwrights who'll get free air fare and hotel accommodations, be greeted as a celebrity, and see your work performed by a talented cast. Make it happen!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]