September 1, 2016 was opening night of the 26th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival. The tiny lobby of Carnegie Stage was full of chatter. I saw Lora Oxenreiter, all smiles, sitting near the front door. Lora introduced me to Festival Director, Mindy Rossi- Stabler. I felt so lucky being at the festival for opening night and having my sister accompany me. My sister, visiting from NYC, is no stranger to theater, art and culture and I was so proud and excited to share this unique Pittsburgh event with her. We each ordered a glass of wine then found seats in the theater.
Thursday was a full house. Scanning the audience everyone was grinning looking happy, thumbing through their programs, pointing at the large plants positioned on stage, leaning sideways or forward in their seat to talk to the people around them. When the lights dimmed the audience hushed but the energy swelled. As introductions were made and announcements presented the audience responded repeatedly with cheers. Thanks given to mayor Jack of Carnegie, to Off The Wall Charitable Trust and FedEx Ground, the first corporate sponsor of PNWF. The audience cheered. The reception by the audience clearly reflects the success of the PNWF for reaching out and creating a community of theatergoers, actors, playwrights, directors and producers who support one another. The festival and all present on September 1 are clearly committed to the festival’s growth and success.
The first performance of the evening, More Than Meets The Eye, written by Johnston, PA playwright F.J. Hartland and presented by South Hills Players, Castle Shannon, PA is a one- man, one- act. The play features actor Sean Butler as Tommy. In the beginning I struggled to discern whether Tommy was a child or a grown man. His character wavered between the two. He dressed in camouflage, with a bandanna on his head and binoculars around his neck. On stage he military crawled between trees and shrubs. The monologue consisted of Tommy communicating with ‘Mother Hen’ through a walkie- talkie. He identified himself as ‘Eagle Eye’.
Eagle Eye Tommy spies on a family. He gives play by play details to Mother Hen via the walkie talkie, announcing how the children greet father when he return home from work, what mother has prepared for dinner and dessert and how parents help the children with their homework and tuck them into bed. He intersperses song lyrics, the chorus of popular songs nearly anyone would recognize. Just when you would really begin to wonder if Tommy is a creep or maybe slow the true meaning of the play is revealed. When it appeared all the audience sucked in their breath at the moment of revelation. Suddenly the silliness of the bitty choruses sung by Tommy are no longer cute but mournful. Quickly the story turned from lighthearted to serious. Playwright Hartland, addresses an important subject in a unique way and Butler delivers the effect of bystanders in a manner that will make you think.
A quick pause then Deck Chairs begins. Presented by Cup-A-Jo-Productions, written by Bill Arnold of Connecticut. The play takes place on the deck of the Titanic- as it is sinking. Albert Swanson, deck hand, is busy arranging chairs, positioning them just right when Chief Steward Harrington appears and questions why he is doing this. Swanson doesn’t believe the ship is sinking, ‘because the band is playing music on the deck, it can’t be serious’. The two debate White Star Line policies, which is one of the funniest moments of the play. Eventually Harrington agrees with Swanson, stating his logic is infallible. He begins to aid Swanson with the setting up the deck chairs, then, Chief Pembrook hurries by. He stops to question the actions of the two men. Swanson states it was he who gave the direction to get the chairs in proper order. Pembrooke reminds them the ship is sinking. Swanson and Harrington relay their infallible theory to Pembrooke and soon he too questions what he thought to be true about the status of the ship. Finally, Duchess Ida Mansard frantically enters. Frightened, she wants answers and assistance. The men easily convince her the ship is not sinking and she offers to help arrange the deck chairs through Feng Shui. The play is filled with witty dialogue, delivered exquisitely by the cast; Benjamin Michael as Albert Swanson, Eric J. McAnallen as Chief Steward Harrington, Jim Froehlich cast as Chief Pembrooke and Candice Fisher as Duchess Ida Mansard.
After a second pause and a quick set change, CCAC South Campus presents All Good Things by Australian playwright Michael Lill. The one-act, features Frank Shoup and Rose- Lorene Miller, husband and wife, Tom and Claire. The two tell stories about their youth. They begin each story with a number; Tom starts with fourteen. He speaks about Allison Cooper, a dance, a kiss, his erection and how much happiness he felt in that moment. It was a story told in the voice of a fourteen year old, I found it easy to get lost in the memory.
Claire starts with the number twelve. She shares the story of her best friend Billy and the tragedy of his life. The next number is forty and is a story about class 7-C and teacher Molly Hardwick. Each story means something- as Tom and Claire reflect they reveal twelve is about confidence, fourteen represents courage and forty is about compassion. These are the lessons Tom and Claire have learned form the different people associated with the stories. All of the story telling culminates in an announcement; Tom and Claire received a big lottery winning; fifty- million dollars. Each person addressed in the stories impacted them in a positive, taught them about the traits of courage, confidence and compassion, and reminded them, ‘Hate never works’, ‘be kind’ and ‘love is like Pi, it goes on forever’. Feel good messages, no matter how they are delivered.
PNWF, Program A, presented 9/1, 9/9 and 9/10 at 8pm as well as 9/3 at 4pm and finally on 9/4 at 2pm. For more on the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, check out our preview article or hit up the PNWF website here.
Buy your tickets to these world premiere plays. Support local theater and familiarize yourself with the art of one- acts. After viewing Program A on Thursday evening, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be disappointed.