The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has selected six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for the best scripts that have premiered professionally outside New York City during 2014. Among the finalists were Rebecca Gilman (whose play, “Luna Gale,” debuted at the Goodman Theatre), and Caitlin Parrish (whose play “Downpour” had its premiere byt Chicago’s Route 66 Theatre Company). In addition, plays by Richard Strand (“Butler,” which will be part of Northlight Theatre’s 2015-2016 season) and Lucas Hnath (nominated for “The Christians,” although another play of his will be presented by Victory Gardens Theater here next season) are on the list.
The top award of $25,000, two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented April 11 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. With its $40,000 in award money, the Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award program of its kind. Since 1977 ATCA began honoring new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City. No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year. Since 2000, the award has been funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
The finalists, alphabetically by play, are:
± “Butler,” by Richard Strand: What starts as a droll comedy of words evolves into a fascinating retelling of a true incident that undermined a century of government-sanctioned slavery. Strand depicts the prickly interaction between a contentious but brilliant escaped slave and a taciturn lawyer recently appointed as a Union Army major general. Amid wry comedic interplay between the protagonists and with an ever-closing life-or-death deadline approaching, the title character finds an ingenious way to turn the official view of slaves as property into a legal way of giving sanctuary and eventually providing freedom to thousands of runaways. The play received its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in June 2014.
± “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath: The audience is thrust into a Sunday morning service in a well-heeled church with an affable, charismatic pastor. But the preacher suddenly advocates a profound departure from dogma, causing a huge rift in the congregation. This even-handed, compelling and theatrical work investigates belief on a personal and theological level. It asks deep moral and spiritual questions about doctrine, faith and belief without condescension and with verve and skill. The work debuted last spring at Actors Playhouse of Louisville through the Humana Festival from the author of a Steinberg citation recipient last year for “Death Tax.”
± “Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea,” by Nathan Alan Davis: This powerful, metaphoric and poetic drama traces one young man’s odyssey in present day Baltimore to palpably connect with his roots by embracing a heroic ancestor who preferred to die drowning in the Atlantic Ocean than arrive in America as a slave. Simultaneously grounded in modern day America, yet gloriously lyrical and theatrical, it mixed the sacred and mundane. The work was formally unveiled as part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere Program in a co-production at the Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles after a developmental production at the DC Source Theater Festival.
± “The Downpour,” by Caitlin Parrish: Described by some judges as a character study in the guise of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, “The Downpour” is a disturbing and well-crafted tale of two sisters scarred by abuse as children. Now adults, they deal differently with the imminent birth of a child. But allegiances, assumptions and expectations turn inside out more than once to make the audience question shallow snap judgments as Parrish confronts unspeakable sorrow without any effort to sugar-coat anything. It had its first outing in September at Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago.
± “Luna Gale,” by Rebecca Gilman: A social worker with a crushing caseload and personal baggage faces a Gordian Knot: leave a child with neglectful meth heads parents or place her with a grandmother who is a religious zealot. This complex and disturbing work is a heart-breaking high-stakes tragedy both relevant and timeless, what one judge called “a pure adrenaline rush.” The play does not provide easy answers for the lifelong after-effects of abuse and how people struggle to fill the resulting holes in their lives with religion, drugs and public service. Its first production was in January 20214 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
± “Veils,” by Tom Coash: A unique look at the differences and similarities between America and the Middle East as viewed in the clashing sensibilities of women’s rights and traditional roles in both civilizations. Two young Muslim women attending the American Egyptian University in Cairo just before the anarchic Arab Spring in 2010 are complex three-dimensional characters, since the American is the more traditional of the two and the Egyptian is enamored of western pop culture. But both are searching for sustaining definitions of how they should lead their lives in order to honor both their faith and their integrity in the world. Its premiere was held in February 2014 at Portland Stage in Maine.
For more information on ATCA, visit http://www.americantheatrecritics.org.
And one final note: I will be giving the keynote address at the annual ATCA meeting in New Orleans on March 26.