By PAM HARBAUGH
This year we had a great group of plays in the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Here is a list of those that rose to the top, and from which the winner and two runners up will be chosen. You’ll be hearing about these plays, just like you’ve heard of past finalists, which includes such terrific works as “I and You,” “Vietgone,” “The Christians,” “Gidion’s Knot,” “Superior Donuts,” “All the Way” and just so many more.
Here’s a quote from the committee’s fearless leader, Lou Harry: ““Short of having an unlimited travel account, there’s no better way to get a sense of the vibrancy of theater across America than serving on the Steinberg judging panel…Once again, the wealth of offerings prompted fierce, thoughtful debate leading not only to a set of deserving honorees, but also to a renewed hope for the future of American theater. Thanks to the Steinbergs, these plays will have extra light shining on them.”
The award is designed to recognize plays that premiered professional outside New York City. The top prize of $25,000 and the two citations of $7,500 each are presented during the final industry weekend at the annual Humana Festival run by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It is the largest national new play award program of its kind and is funded generously by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
Here are the finalists, in alphabetical order, for the 2018 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, with various comments from committee members:
BIRTHDAY CANDLES [Noah Haidle] “somehow bakes up the simple and the cosmic into a profound experience.” “There’s nothing particularly distinctive about Ernestine or anyone in her family, but they’re treated with such grace and respect that their remarkable qualities (which is of course to say, everyone’s remarkable qualities) come through.” “I started to feel a tear form on page 64, when she speaks to her granddaughter so simply and eloquently,” and even with a cake baked on stage in real time, this is “far from a gimmick play. It’s a beautiful one that walks a fine line that stays specific while occupying the universal.” “Birthday Candles” had its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre.
CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND [Lauren Yee] offers “a very involving story about war, selfishness, atrocity, betrayal, revenge, retribution, and guilt-laden survival.” “The notion of exploring the Cambodian holocaust through contemporary investigation, past survivor memories, and rock and roll is absolutely inspired, and to execute it with such unexpected humor and supple time shifts is a real accomplishment.” “It’s refreshing to see a playwright move so deftly between three eras. The transitions felt seamless.” “This play felt at once fresh and deeply grounded in history. “Cambodian Rock Band” had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California.
DOWNSTATE [Bruce Norris] provides “a real contribution to the American conversation about an important topic which often confounds honest give and take.” Woven into a rich, subtly complex plot, his characters are sex offenders, “but Norris doesn’t preach. He asks us to read between the lines. He asks us to think. And, yes, he also asks us to see the men who have committed these reprehensible acts as human. Not as forgiven, but human nonetheless.” “It’s extraordinary…and brave.” “Downstate” had its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
LETTIE [Boo Killebrew] struck one panelist as “absolutely authentic in its understanding of the fault lines that make reentry fiendishly difficult for parolees and family members alike.” “I never got the feeling that the author was ticking off boxes (drug past, check; retraining problems, check; housing obstacles, check) but she got it right nevertheless: the pathology that sends someone into the school-to-prison pipeline, and that keeps them from getting out and staying out. “Lettie” not only calls attention to it but brings it alive with such humanity and dramatic tension, makes it notable.” “It’s still all too rare to read credible American plays about the contemporary American working class. This is one of them.” “Lettie” had its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.
PLAINCLOTHES [Spenser Davis] tells “a small scale story of work life behind security cameras” yet is a “wonder of language play and dialogue excellence.” “It considers racial issues in today’s uncertain workplace and incorporates great heart. It’s not just a playwright’s polemic.” “With terrific energy, distinctive characters, lots of humor, and something to say about race and class and corporate benign neglect” “weaving together an entertaining scenario while also gut punching the audience with real world consequences.” “Plainclothes” had its world premiere at Broken Nose Theatre in Chicago.
WITCH [Jen Silverman] is “a beautifully balanced play, offering succession and inheritance issues, a silver-tongued Devil, and a gutsy unpopular woman with a great head on her shoulders. The idea of an apprentice devil makes this beguiling, a sort of “It’s a Terrible life” in Frank Capra terms.” “I’ve never seen a ‘deal with the devil’ concept blow away my expectations the way this one did.” “Simple, but so intriguing.” “Plus a strong fight scene.” “And Morris dancing.” “Witch” had its world premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois.
For more information, visit AmericanTheatreCritics.org.