extreme culture

Finalists for this year’s Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.


Each year, I have the privilege of sitting on the readers committee for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.

The award is the largest of its kind, with $40,000 in money given to the overall winner and two runners up. The recipients are announced each year during the final Industry Weekend at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

This year had a bounty of terrific nominees. We spent a good deal of time reading then debating the merits of each. Many of them will go on to be Broadway shows and also play in regional and community theaters around the country. Two years ago, the winner was Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” which won a Tony for best play and won Bryan Cranston a Tony for best actor in a play. Last year’s winner was Lauren Gunderson’s moving play, “I and You” which was produced at Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre earlier this season.

Here are the six finalists for this year’s awards. The descriptions come courtesy an ATCA press release:

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 it 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 a 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.

These six finalists were selected from 27 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 17 theater critics, led by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman, FloridaTheaterOnStage.com, and vice-chairman Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal/IBJ.com.

Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufman, Craig Lucas and Robert Schenkkan. Last year’s honoree was Lauren Gunderson’s I and You which has gone to be one of most produced new plays coming out of the regional theater movement.

For a full list of all the winners and runners up in previous years, click onto the “Awards” tab at www.americantheatrecritics.org.