Cancer, hilarity, horses, and dreams

The New Works Festival provides a venue for the thesis plays of graduate playwrights before the pieces are shown to agents in New York City. These students have spent the past semester developing scripts and working with graduate directors, lighting designers, and undergraduate actors, each to produce what graduate playwright Christopher Dimond describes as a “work in progress...open for feedback from other writers, actors, and instructors.” Because the thesis plays are workshop pieces, actor involvement is key in the creative process; Dimond emphasized the importance of the entire journey rather than the creation of a finished product. For his musical Dani Girl, he collaborated with fellow artist and musician Michael Kooman, who provides musical accompaniment for School of Drama productions. Dimond said creative differences led the two to push each other to move the script forward and improve it.

Both Dimond and fellow grad student Jason Williamson, who wrote Ether Steeds for his thesis, hope to see their plays take off on a larger scale, ideally on Broadway. Williamson credits his education within the graduate program for his exponential growth as a writer. His play engages the theme of human loneliness as it plays out in its Southern setting, indicative of his North Carolina upbringing. Admitting his resentment for “the politics of the South,” Williamson said he stopped “ignoring the poetry of the language he grew up around” and turned it into something beautiful.

Graduate student Ed Iskandar directed Ether Steeds, and he and Williamson collaborated extensively on developing the script while paying special attention to “serving the text itself” and preserving the project’s primary intent — forming Williamson’s thesis.

Ether Steeds follows the lives of restless, imaginative teenage girl Skeeta and her abusive alcoholic mother. The object of the women’s combined affections, Emory, creates conflict between mother and daughter, as does Skeeta’s late father who reappears in his daughter’s dreams. A supernatural tone runs throughout the play, and the ghostly blue lighting effectively conveys a sense of eeriness. Williamson cleverly evokes what he calls the “poetry of the [Southern] dialect” in his beautifully crafted dialogue, but the repetition of select phrases, including “bits and pieces,” eventually grows tiresome as the phrases lose their effect.

Motifs of “teeth,” biting, and stinging exemplify the basic human survivalist instinct, one that explains the selfish behavior that Skeeta’s unhinged mother repeatedly displays toward her daughter. While Williamson captures the growing distance between hopeless mother and hopeful daughter, the dynamic between the two lacks believability on stage. Skeeta’s mother, still reeling from her husband’s death, verbally abuses her daughter in an expression of misappropriated contempt and as a feeble attempt to narrow the palpable gap that separates the two and defines their relationship. Often distracted and poorly versed in human interaction, Skeeta fumbles through a flirtation with reserved, handsome Emory. Truly, the play’s greatest achievement lies in the portrayal of Skeeta’s coming of age — remarkably conveyed by senior actor Susan Goodwillie — in the face of the dreams that haunt her, the surroundings that restrict her, and the longing for a “true union” that ultimately eludes her. Goodwillie’s performance, a conscientious tour de force, drives the entire show and evokes the sympathy of the audience. At once captivating and heartbreaking, Ether Steeds reminds us that we are all alone, that we can search endlessly for sincerity and community and still end up disappointed.

The second New Works Festival production, Dimond’s Dani Girl, is a work that musically depicts a seven-year-old’s battle with cancer. Reminiscent of Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade, Dani playfully interacts with her flamboyant imaginary friend and guardian angel Raph, a constant source of comic relief. Full of pop culture references, edgy racial jokes, and side-splitting wordplay, the script shines and grasps the audience from start to finish. However, the play comments upon its own cleverness, never failing to point out its own irony, which subtracts from the sharp, witty writing.

School of Drama graduate Marissa Lesch plays Dani, and although she performs with unflagging conviction, her overzealous enthusiasm shifts the audience’s focus away from the gravity of her character’s plight. The score falls short of sensational, with the lyrical quality surpassing the technical composition, but the actors sing phenomenally, especially School of Drama junior Liam Rhodes, who plays Marty, Dani’s fellow cancer patient and partner in crime.

According to Dimond, one of the initial challenges in writing Dani Girl was negotiating “where the tenderness, truth, and humor” come into the play, balancing levity with gravity. He effectively uses humor while portraying children tackling mature themes such as death, divorce, drugs, and the central unanswerable question “Why is cancer?” and with the appearance of God as a character, Dani Girl also addresses religion. Rather than coming off as preachy, this technique helps to sensitively explore the differing ways in which children and adults cope with mortality. At its heart, the play entertains and saddens but lacks focus, attempting to include several subplots that cannot be fully developed in the shadow of Dani’s tearjerking fate.