One mark of a good play is its ability to touch the audience even when its trimmings – save for chair and a handful of props – are stripped away, leaving only space, people, and words.
Students participating in Wheaton’s New Plays Festival on Feb. 22 and 23 did not have the luxury to hide behind grandiose sets, music, or even time. Each of the six plays, all written, directed, and acted by students, was afforded a maximum of four 90-minute rehearsals. The actors weren’t even given time to memorize their lines; each of them gripped their scripts throughout, acting through the distraction so effectively that it was easy to forget the paper was even there. It stands as a testament to the ability of the playwrights to craft a story and characters that transcend physicality in such a gripping way.
A selection of the plays being showcased included: the story of the family of a boy with Asperger’s, a comedy satirizing the nature of international politics, and a beautiful piece which strives at least in part to answer Juliet Capulet’s question, “What’s in a name?”
Thomas Nagata ’15’s “Special” explores the family dynamics of an American nuclear family in the wake of their son Derek’s Asperger’s diagnosis. The play, it seems, is not so much about Derek as it is about his parents and his sister, Sarah.
“I wanted to explore how he interacted with his family,” said Nagata during the question and answer session that followed.
As their parents become more and more anxious about Derek and throw all their energy into helping him “fit in,” Sarah’s need for parental support grows as she faces the often drastic problems that tend to accompany early adulthood.
“I don’t have a lot of experience with people with Asperger’s,” admitted Nagata. It shows: Derek is almost entirely an archetypical Asperger’s character, with little to distinguish him outside his diagnosis. Nagata’s research, however, shows, and however lacking in dimension Derek may be, his character will feel familiar to people who do have the experience Nagata lacks.
Professor Charlotte Meehan, who ran the Q&A and who teaches the Advanced Playwriting class in which all the festival’s playwrights are enrolled, called “Special” “a very sensitive play, and a very sincere play.” Addressing Nagata directly, she added, “There’s a real genuineness in your writing.”
Harry Bachrach ’15’s “Playing House” is similarly centered on family dynamics, but unlike “Special,” Bachrach’s play is very direct. To allay any confusion, each character is named after the country he or she represents. The play focuses on the two parents, U.S.A. and Mother Russia, wrangling their bickering twin sons, Israel and Palestine. It is a topical and hysterical play, but it ends on a more serious note that Meehan afterwards describes as “hard-hitting,” moving it “from an SNL skit to a play.”
Of the three, however, it was Sherry Wei ’14’s “Name Tells This and That” which struck the most devastating emotional blows. It begins on a funny and surreal note, and although the play grows more serious in tone, and more of what is happening becomes clear, it never quite loses its dreamlike quality. The characters speak in a sort of poetry, which makes their moments of straightforward honesty almost painfully stark. A scene with silly string, which seems as though it should be funny, instead nearly elicits tears.
A “very delicate play that incorporates a number of styles,” according to Meehan, “Name Tells This and That” expresses the ways in which people take on new names for the people they love.
The New Plays Festival may be small, short, and minimally equipped with props, but it is these limits which showcase the power of the artists at Wheaton. Stripped of adornments but not of power, the Festival’s new plays are the heart of writing, of theater and of art.