Excellent acting and writing distinguishes the majority of pieces within the EST Marathon 2007 Series A. As usual, the annual festival of new one-act plays has attracted several top-notch playwrights such as Neil LaBute and Wendy MacLeod, as well as first-rate acting talent like Dana Delany, Bruce MacVittie, Grant Shaud, and Victor Slezak.
The program gets off to a good start with Billy Aronson’s The News, which revolves around Karen (Geneva Carr), a cancer patient who has just discovered that the surgery she was about to undergo would have no effect on her condition. She is visited in her hospital room by friends Hillary (Diana Ruppe) and David (Thomas Lyons), as well as husband George (Shaud).
While the subject matter is heavy, the play is far from depressing. It’s filled with numerous quirky touches and terrific dialogue that at times borders on absurdity. Director Jamie Richards has coaxed some wonderful performances out of her cast, especially Carr and Shaud who engage in an epic shouting match over the balloons that he has brought to decorate her room. The scene is played for laughs, but informed by a subtext of fear and the knowledge of Karen’s imminent death.
Perhaps the most high-profile piece on the bill is LaBute’s Things We Said Today, which ends the evening. It is brought vividly to life by actors Delany and Slezak under the nuanced direction of Andrew McCarthy. Delany is utterly mesmerizing as a pregnant wife who has just found out that her husband has been cheating on her with someone very close to her. The undercurrent of rage that simmers just beneath the surface of her portrayal is marvelously expressed both in her vocal inflections and nonverbal reactions. Slezak, for his part, brilliantly babbles on, spouting excuses and pulling out one cliché after another in an attempt to defuse the situation. LaBute’s writing is wickedly funny, and contains a rather shocking denouement that is somewhat predictable only because the playwright has become known for his last-minute plot twists.
MacVittie delivers Wendy MacLeod’s powerful monologue The Probabilities, sensitively directed by Karen Kohlhaas, about a man who has come to tell us why weather matters. This is no dry lecture, however. MacVittie’s off-beat delivery is both extremely funny and suffused with a deep melancholy; you can see the man’s pain bubble to the surface as he describes tragedies such as the so-called “Children’s Blizzard” of 1888, that claimed the lives of numerous youths. His final story of disaster is one that seems to have a much more personal connection to him.
Julia Cho’s The First Tree in Antarctica is another moving piece, directed by Kate Whoriskey to emphasize the work’s poetry without crossing the line into pretentiousness. Sylvie (Michi Barall) has been having dreams of Antarctica lately, and doesn’t know why. Meanwhile, there’s a boy named Shawn (Jon Norman Schneider) who is trying to call her. As the different threads of the play come together, the result is extremely poignant.
On the downside, My Dog Heart, by Edith Freni, is the evening’s sole failure. It’s about a woman (Pepper Binkley) infected with a heart worm, who must choose between an iron heart replacement that would be functional but cut off her ability to feel and a dog heart that would be imperfect but allow for emotions. The piece is clunkily written and awkwardly directed by John Gould Rubin. The cast is unable to rise above the material, although Brian Avers has some nice moments as the man who caused the protagonist’s infection.
This is the first year the Marathon has been presented without EST founder Curt Dempster, who died earlier this year, at the helm. Now under the supervision of EST’s new leader, William Carden, this beloved one-act festival seems to be in quite capable hands.