For one, the playwright, Laura Marks, grew up in Kentucky. Though she long ago had her accent drilled out of her in acting classes, she still sounds nostalgic about her rural childhood. In an interview, she rhapsodizes about "going to a little pink country church with my grandma and the sort of vivid immediacy of religion that I experienced there ... so personal and so vital and very moving."
Nostalgia aside, this is also a playwright who takes on contemporary issues, such as bank foreclosures and unemployment. She's written her Kentucky story, "Gather at the River," as a nuanced look at two cultures meeting and meshing.
Protagonist Ellen is a 40-year-old who gave up her career as a lawyer to become a stay-at-home mom and is now looking for something important to do with her life. Heading from New York to Kentucky to volunteer with the Christian group ends up being "a kind of accidental journey of self-discovery" in which she faces herself and her own beliefs, Marks says. Meanwhile, the Kentuckians, while strict in their faith and lifestyle, are not so rigid that they believe they know it all.
"It's a play that investigates questions of faith and the power that those ideas hold in our country," Marks says, "and the polarized nature of our country right now. ... It's important to me that we not just be laughing at these people."
Audiences can come to their own conclusions — and give their own feedback — when "Gather at the River" comes to Palo Alto later this month. Marks and her play will be part of this year's New Works Festival at TheatreWorks, with staged readings on Aug. 16 and 18.
Now in its 12th year, the festival presents readings of new plays and musicals that are still being developed, giving the audiences the chance to comment on in-progress works and the creators the time and space to refine them. Playwrights, composers and lyricists come from all over to take part in the festival, working with directors and actors to present their visions on the Lucie Stern Theatre stage.
Other shows scheduled for this year's festival are: the musical romance "Cubamor," with book and lyrics by James D. Sasser and music and lyrics by Charles Vincent Burwell; the bittersweet comedy "The Great Pretender," by David West Read; "Mrs. Hughes," a musical drama about Sylvia Plath, with music and lyrics by Sharon Kenny and book by Janine Nabers; and the 1920s-inspired farce "Laugh," by Beth Henley (who also wrote "Crimes of the Heart").
Marks says she's looking forward to having "a whole week to spend with the play, fine-tuning things" at New Works. "Most readings you rehearse for a couple of hours and put it up. This is going to be a much more in-in-depth experience."
Most of the six actors taking part in the script-in-hand reading of "Gather at the River" will be local and new to Marks, with the exception of Dale Soules, an actress whom the playwright is bringing in from New York. Soules will star as "strong and shrewd" Hazel, one of the three Kentucky women who interact with the protagonist, Marks says. She'll be familiar to some local audiences; she played Big Edie in "Grey Gardens" at TheatreWorks in 2008.
The playwright herself may also be familiar after her play "Bethany" was staged in New York earlier this year. It starred America Ferrara as a woman hit hard by the recent recession. (The writer's husband, the actor Ken Marks, played the bad guy.) The New York Times praised the play for the "clear, compassionate attention it pays to the corrosive effects of the economic downturn on the battered middle class."
Marks says "Bethany" was inspired in part by her own layoff. In 2009, the Juilliard graduate was let go from a corporate job, and "just poured all that anxiety into 'Bethany,'" she says. Fortunately for her, becoming a full-time playwright has paid off. "Bethany" is now scheduled for its first major regional production, at the Old Globe in San Diego, and will head to the Main Street Theater Company in Houston after that.
In the meantime, Marks will be here in Palo Alto, working and hoping to make "Gather at the River" strike another resonant chord with audiences. "It's the best kind of work," she says.
What: The 12th annual New Works Festival at TheatreWorks, with staged readings of new plays and musicals, and a "Meet the Festival Artists" afternoon
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Aug. 10-18. Scheduled readings: "Cubamor" at 8 p.m. Aug. 10, 14 and 17; "The Great Pretender" at 2 p.m. Aug. 11 and at 4 p.m. Aug. 17; "Mrs. Hughes" at 8 p.m. Aug. 11 and 15 and at noon Aug. 18; "Laugh" at 8 p.m. Aug. 13 and noon Aug. 17; and "Gather at the River" at 8 p.m. Aug. 16 and 18. "Meet the Festival Artists" is at 4 p.m. Aug. 18.
Cost: Single events are $19, and an all-festival pass is $65.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.