A Glimpse Into Our Theatregoing Future At Dramaworks ‘New Year New Play’ Festival
If you’ve ever attempted playwriting, then you’ve probably discovered that plays seldom jump out of the mind of their author fully formed. Instead, most new plays that make it to production have first undergone a development period, in which the playwrights work with other theatre artists to bring an idea to its more realized form. And this is where initiatives like Palm Beach Dramaworks’ New Year New Play Festival come in.
At this annual event, which is a culmination of regular “Dramaworkshop” readings held throughout the year, the authors of the top five plays are invited to develop and showcase one of their works-in-progress via a public reading featuring professional actors. At the festival, five such readings were presented to audiences, and each was followed by a talkback with the director, cast, and playwright that allowed us audience members to provide our feedback on the work.
Because my life APART from theatre remains more or less nonexistent, I chose to attend four of these five readings. These provided audiences with a first taste of four very different plays, which varied as much in style and form as in setting and subject matter, starting with Jenny Connell Davis’s play The Messenger.
This work was inspired by the true story of Georgia Gabor, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who escaped to the United States and became a suburban schoolteacher only to become the subject of scrutiny when she dared share her traumatic history.
Though Davis amusingly mentioned during the talkback that it had not been on her bucket list to write a Holocaust play, she found herself particularly intrigued by Gabor’s story, which she then found a unique way to present by pairing it with the stories of three other women from three other generations whose experience had some thematic connection to Gabor’s.
These included an Asian American high school student facing her own struggles with discrimination, a mother struggling to protect her child’s innocence, and a scholar reckoning with dangerous truths. Starring as Gabor was local actress Margery Lowe, who was last seen at PBD in last season’s Belle Of Amherst and again completely transformed herself to embody the headstrong woman.
The piece, which director Bill Hayes told us was one that Dramaworks intends to eventually produce, stood out to me for the well-rounded way in which it presents even its less likable characters, as well as for the ways in which it thematically connects different forms of oppression. The talkback also provided one of the most moving moments of the entire festival when Hayes pointed out Gabor’s grandson in the audience, and when he tearfully commented on how effectively the play had represented her legacy.
Next on the roster was The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool by Michael Hollinger, which was less obviously “topical” than Messenger by virtue of taking place in an imagined distant past where monarchy was the order of the day. At the center of this work, we find the “virgin queen” Adalia, who is forced to confront a series of dark secrets as she approaches the end of her life and must make arrangements for her succession. And though that summation probably makes the play sound a little stiff, it was actually one of the more comedic offerings of the bunch, thanks to its witty dialogue as well as the antics of the second character named in the title: the Fool, played with an abundance of charm by imported actor Harrison Tipping.
The supremely queenly Kimberly S. Fairbanks also served as a charismatic anchor to the proceedings as Adalia, with David Ingram and Melanye Duschene Finister rounding out the cast as servants whose true relationship to the royal family only gradually becomes clear.
A laundry list of twists also provided a never-ending supply of suspense while constantly adding context to everything that had gone before to create an overall riveting story. And when asked to consider what this one was “about” in a broader philosophical sense, I found my mind wandering to the burdens that come with holding power and of living in the public eye, as well as to the ways in which the lives of even modern royals have been (mostly negatively) shaped by these burdens. Of course, I’ve no good solution to the many ensuing questions of how power should be allocated if all of men’s current systems of governance seem always to be falling short, but it is interesting to contemplate!
After the Playwright’s Forum, a question and answer session with the playwright in which they proved just as insightful off the page as they are when crafting their work, next up was The Islanders by Casey Crim. This play, which was probably my favorite of the festival, follows the story of two new neighbors on the remote island referred to in the title, played by Michelle M. Mountain and John Leonard Thompson in luminous performances.
Through slow revelations, the characters gradually bond as details of each’s traumatic pasts are revealed and the two batten down each other’s many defenses. There’s plenty of humor along with pathos in this beautifully affecting play, which is one that the author noted as having been partially inspired by the experience of the pandemic though the event itself was not addressed. But what the play does address in spades is loneliness—the terror and beauty inherent and daring to connect with another human being.
The next reading in the bunch, Dangerous Instruments, is the only one I missed, not because I do indeed have a life but because I said I’d volunteer at another theatre! Then, last but not least on Dramaworks roster was Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Bill Cain, which examined pieces of American history both well-remembered and near-forgotten in its depiction of several key moments in the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his eldest son Robert and in the lead up to and tragic culmination of the 1894 Pullman Strike.
The play explored resonant themes such as how much pain can be caused even without malice, and the impossible choices that must be made when man is faced with the dark heart of war. It’s also one that found me contemplating questions of power, and who it is that deserves to wield it, and the relevance out past has to our future.
In the end, any of these plays in their final form would make for interesting fodder for a future night at the theatre—or, for that matter, a future review—than a lot of more seasoned plays in a given season. These offerings all certainly lived up to Dramaworks’ stated mission of creating “theatre to think about”—and I can’t wait to see any of them fully realized!