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BWW Review: Contemporary American Theatre Festival's Listening Party for REDEEMED Yet Another Afternoon of Gripping Drama

BWW Review:  Contemporary American Theatre Festival's Listening Party for REDEEMED Yet Another Afternoon of Gripping Drama

As the Contemporary American Theater Festival revs up for its Summer season, audiences are being treated, by way of a preview, with opportunities to branch out from live theatre. CATF wants us to take the time to reflect on work this year's playwrights have produced in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic made its deadly presence known. Although this season's offerings represent what was originally programmed for the Summer of 2020, Producing Artistic Director Peggy McKowen wants us to be in touch with where the playwrights have been over the past two years.

Recently, CATF supporters gathered to hear one of playwright Chisa Hutchinson's latest pieces, a radio drama that was co-commissioned by both the Festival and Vermont's Dorset Theatre Festival. Over a fine, inventively crafted lunch at one of Shepherdstown's newest restaurants, Alma Bea (near the railroad tracks, just a couple blocks from the town's main drag), we were all given headphones and were instantly immersed in a tense, emotionally-wrenching drama "Redeemed." Ms. Hutchinson also took the time to chat with us, virtually, about the show and its background.

Set in a prison meeting room, "Redeemed" takes us on a harrowing, daring exploration of the human psyche, as a murderer convicted of a hate crime pleas with his victim's sister for a second chance. Solidly directed by Jade King Carroll, this two-hander is a plunge into the darker depths, albeit leavened by Hutchinson's taste for sly one-liners, which can elicit laughter even as you kind of dread what's about to happen next.

As Trevor, the convict, Broadway veteran Michael Esper oozes the sincerity of what (to us) sounds exactly the way a converted ex-white supremacist should sound. His empathy is pitch-perfect, and Hutchinson makes sure you are drawn in by his narrative in Act 1. His counterpart, Claire - played here with riveting intensity by off-Broadway star Vanessa Kai-is as brittle and angry as one might expect, and yet their initial confrontation leaves you with doubts about whether Claire is being too harsh. The 'reverse racism' card gets tossed in as well, and we're left wondering whose side we should be on. She seems inclined to reject his request for a good word to his parole board. Isn't there some room for reconciliation here?

It turns out that Trevor has even written a book about his conversion-which somehow ends up in Claire's hands. And in their second encounter, we almost believe that a happy ending is possible. (Don't we all love happy endings?) Still, little by little, and with a surgical precision that astonishes, Claire dismantles the façade of Trevor's redemption for his heinous crime, and he is left with a choice that will haunt you for ages after you put the headphones away.

In the online conversation we had afterwards, Hutchinson stressed that this piece was inspired by the exponential rise in hate-crimes directed against Asian Americans. Hutchinson-whose grandmother is Japanese-uses this play to explore the racism that seems endemic to society, and she makes quick work of the often self-serving desire of whites to avoid responsibility for the damage done, and pretending that just saying 'sorry' ever cuts it. What does redemption really mean, after all? Can we really expect survivors to forgive and forget, do we really want everyone to leave the dead to bury the dead, and get back to business as usual?

The conversation moved beyond "Redeemed" to some of her other work; some commented on how Hutchinson's scripts often create images and situations which, on plain paper, look utterly impossible. Since these images occur spontaneously and are often a vital part of the play's action, she cheerfully admits to handing off these 'impossible' details to the production crew, and CATF has spent some time preparing for the special effects required for her upcoming premiere of "Whitelisted" this July.

Any time spent with Chisa Hutchinson's characters leaves you changed, thoughtful-and, she hopes, more empathetic and aware. "Redeemed" certainly accomplishes that, and then some.

Running Time: 82 minutes, intermission optional.

For access to the Dorset Theatre Festival's recording of "Redeemed," visit:

https://dorsettheatrefestival.org/redeemed

Chisa Hutchinson's "Whitelisted" is one of the main-stage productions at this year's festival.

The 2022 Contemporary American Theater Festival begins its runs July 8-31 on the campus of Shepherd University in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

For tickets call 800-999-CATF (2283) or visit www.catf.org/tickets .



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