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CATF 2015: Johnna Adams’ ‘World Builders’ takes the prize

Written By | Jul 24, 2015

SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia, July 23, 2015 – Last but not least, we review the world premiere of Johnna Adams’ intimate and provocative new play, “World Builders.” Subtitled “A Love Story,” we’d agree that it certainly is. Except that it’s not the kind of love story most of us would ever imagine.

Adams’ new drama is staged in Studio 112, the small, virtually black box space CATF has used for intimate, innovative and provocative new dramas since Building I of its still-evolving Center for Contemporary Arts first opened several seasons ago. Festival patrons soon learned that “Studio 112” plays were usually something special, and “World Builders” adds more evidence to support that perception.

Whitney and Max.

Hyperactive Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and introverted Max (Chris Thorn) seem to be getting off to a bad start. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

In Adams’ sad, poignant yet weirdly and warmly comic drama, which is staged in the round, we become silent observers inside a mental health facility. It is here in a stark, sterile, unpromising environment that we meet this one-act play’s only characters, Max (Chris Thorn) and Whitney (Brenna Palughi).

Both live in a self-imagined, schizophrenic world of bizarre, obsessive and highly imaginative dreams. As the opening scenes unfold, we discover that they’re residing in this facility more or less on their own initiative. They are taking part in what is probably a Stage 3 (final) trial of a promising new experimental drug which, its creators believe, holds great promise to bring patients like Max and Whitney back to actual reality as most of us experience and perceive it.

Read also: CATF 2015: West Virginia festival debuts 5 American dramas.

To the pair’s shock and surprise, the drug gradually begins to work and work well, and soon, they find themselves on the horns of a peculiar and frightening dilemma: which place is better, the new, real world they’re discovering for the first time—or their own custom-built, private, inner space, the personalized refuge to which they’ve regularly retreated throughout their conscious lives?

Additionally, Max, Whitney and audience members themselves must grapple with another serious question that plagues contemporary society, sociology and psychiatry: Why are more and more of us taking all manor of mind-altering and behavior-modifying drugs? And what is this doing for originality and individuality? Are we heading for some kind of chemical-induced “Matrix” of the future?

These are cosmic question that even “normal” people grapple with from time to time. Though we may complain about it on a regular basis, we tend to like the way we lead our lives in spite of knowing all about the shortcomings. We’ve created a comfortable space, however deficient it may be, and we increasingly resent any effort or event that threatens to take us out of our comfort zones and thrust us into something that’s new and unknown.

The problem for Max and Whitney is exponentially greater, however. Although both are diagnosed schizophrenics, they still retain enough objective intellectual capacity to know that the worlds to which they retreat, often under outward duress, are self-created and unknown and unknowable to the average person.

Worse, the average individual, if apprised of the bizarre details and landscapes of those decidedly non-standard worlds, would almost certainly prefer that both Max and Whitney be taken off the streets and put away for good.

Whitney and Max.

Are Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and Max (Chris Thorn) really willing to exchange their worlds for normalcy? (Credit: Seth Freeman)

On the other hand, both Max and Whitney have become involved in this experiment mostly on their own volition. Whether through family members, co-workers or both, they’ve been informed—and understand—they’ve been gradually going downhill, becoming further and further removed from reality to the point where they could lose their freedom permanently if they’re committed. Hence, their reluctant but still real willingness to take a chance on achieving “normalcy,” which for them is a fearsome unknown land.

If this all sounds like clinical psychobabble, on one level it certainly is. But the skill of the playwright transforms the abstract into a human struggle that becomes surprisingly real for the majority of audience members who’ve never experienced a mental state like schizophrenia at all. Following the classic dictate for fiction, drama and film, we are shown—not told—what’s going on and are thus drawn into each character’s internal struggles in a most convincing way.

Adams’ technique is simple. After each understandably self-centered character tries to keep the other at arms’ length, they gradually begin to open up to one another to “share” their “world,” their personal reality with one another. This is dangerous territory, since it amounts to inviting an unpredictable alien being into an inner world that has never been shared. Having exposed one’s secret hideaway to even one other person exposes one’s sanctuary to invasion and destruction.

Nonetheless, as the drug takes effect and erodes each character’s defenses, the masks begin to slip. The wildly animated Whitney reveals her ongoing world as a time-traveling, ever-morphing outer space odyssey, a weirdly subjective soap opera peopled by alien characters and alien planets whose aims and characteristics shape-shift at will.

As the touchy, deeply repressed Max carefully opens up, we learn why he’s concealed his own secret world so carefully. It’s a horrible, claustrophobic world where he is forced to sit as a silent observer as a gruesome, unseen serial murderer terminates victim after victim.

Such deep, personal revelations can be difficult even in a healthy marriage. One can imagine how much more difficult this situation must be for Max and Whitney who meet as strangers and have no concept whatsoever as to what a healthy mental state even means, except that they haven’t experienced it. But having touched the Holy Grail of normalcy and deep interpersonal relationships, can they take it a step further? Is it possible they can fall in love?

All this makes for a theater experience that’s funny, touching, moving, frightening and above all, personal. CATF founder Ed Herendeen has often pitched the notion that this annual festival of new American plays is designed to be “Think Theater,” featuring the kind of plays that cause audience members to discuss and even argue about what they’ve just seen well after the final curtain has fallen.

Playwright Johnna Adams.

Playwright Johnna Adams. (Courtesy CATF)

“World Keepers” is clearly the best example of “Think Theater” of the five plays being performed in this year’s edition of CATF. The audience is drawn into a wildly unfamiliar pair of “worlds”—worlds that even seem, on the face of it, stupid and ridiculous. But these are still the worlds in which Max and Whitney live for increasing amounts of their time, and to understand, we have to go with the flow and experience their stories, which to them are as real as our own normal ones.

It’s a stretch. But the playwright carefully draws us in and we become involved and believe, which is the essence of the live theater experience, making this art form unlike any other. In the main, the entire effort is brilliantly accomplished.

Our only criticism of the play involves its finale, in which all the personal and dramatic threads are brought to as much closure as is possible in context. Here, Adams falters a bit, taking too long to work through the denouement.

At this point, the audience understands where things are going and how the situation may very well resolve, but the characters are made to over-explain, risking tediousness and perhaps indulging in it. We powerfully sense that a natural conclusion is upon us. Getting to it perhaps a scant five minutes sooner by eliminating some redundant dialogue and a stop-start or two would get this script very close to perfection.

We’d be remiss at this point if we didn’t offer a hat tip to the pair of fine actors who make us believe in Max and Whitney. Furtive, touchy and pathologically secretive at the outset, Chris Thorn’s Max evolves into a surprisingly compassionate and decisive—though still imperfect—example of a man driven by his best qualities.

In many ways his polar opposite, the compulsively talkative yet less open Whitney, as skillfully portrayed by Brenna Palughi, has constructed a vast universe as opposed to a single “world,” and is deathly afraid of parting with it. Yet, in her longing and fragility, we identify with her anyway and might even be willing to help should Max choose to step away. And that’s a real tribute to the depth of Palughi’s multifaceted portrayal.

Although CATF is not a contest, during each season it’s clear that some plays work better than others. It’s clear as well that even a few of them won’t have much of a shelf-life after this year’s festival closes in early August.

That’s not a big deal, though. After all, if you think about it, how many of Beethoven’s competitors are ever heard in the concert hall these days? That’s the essence of new material. Even the best plays in a given year can still be hit or miss in the long run.

But in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, we’d have to say that in our opinion at least, “World Builders” is very likely to be the play that sticks with audiences the longest. The magic happens. We’re drawn into unfamiliar worlds, experience them in unexpected ways, and emerge as different people at least on some level.

“World Builders” is wise, compassionate, funny and sad. It presents a difficult situation, offers no rote solutions, but still manages to leave us with some hope and understanding. It’s uplifting without being preachy, open and honest without being politically correct. With perhaps a nip-tuck to the finale, it’s a play that has a strong potential to reach a much wider audience as the positive word begins to spread.

Highly recommended.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

“World Builders” by Johnna Adams continues its run at CATF’s Studio 112, Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) Building I through August 2. For exact dates, times and directions to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, visit the official CATF web site.

For an overview of CATF 2015, check out our CDN preview article here.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17