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Contemporary American Theater Festival

July 09, 1997

By TERI JOHNSON

Staff Writer

Your heart is racing, and you contemplate the cost of success.

Just how far would you go to win?

Those issues surface in "Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old," one of three new plays being presented this month by Contemporary American Theater Festival, a professional, resident theater company based at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

New York playwright Benjie Aerenson's drama tells the story of three men who conspire to kill a racehorse for the insurance money, and what they do in a desperate situation.

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"When you betray the thing that's closest to you, you're lost," Aerenson says.

The play, sponsored by Charles Town Races, opened Wednesday at Frank Center for the Creative Arts. Eight more performances are scheduled through Saturday, July 26.

Both acts of the play are set in Florida. Aerenson drew his inspiration from a story he read in The New York Times and his memories of racetracks in Florida, where he grew up.

Aerenson, recipient of this year's L. Arnold Weissberger Award for "Possum Play," worked closely with Herendeen and the cast during the four weeks of rehearsal.

On the surface, the play is about horses, but larger questions of truth, courage and manipulation are raised.

The three characters make immoral choices and have to live with them, says Gil Rogers, who plays Carl the horse trainer.

"It's a real morality play," says Rogers, who has played Hawk Shayne on the CBS daytime soap opera "Guiding Light" for 13 years.

The play's treatment of contemporary issues such as ethics, honesty and betrayal is one of the reasons it was chosen, says Ed Herendeen, producing director of the festival.

Rogers describes Carl as a man devoted to horses and on a serious mission to save the stable.

J.P. Linton plays George, the horse owner's son, a man struggling with being in the shadow of his powerful father.

Louis Lotorto portrays Bud, a horse groom that finds himself in a tight situation.

Linton and Lotorto also star in "Below the Belt," a dark comedy about the contemporary workplace being presented at the festival this year.

"They're chameleons," says Herendeen, the director of both plays. "It's a real treat for audiences to see such different performances."

The two plays are running in rotation with "Demonology," a comedy that explores the relationship between a temporary employee and her boss.

Unbeknownst to those casting "Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old," Rogers had additional expertise, Herendeen says.

Rogers grew up in Lexington, Ky., and he and his father have raised racehorses for about 30 years. One of their horses, Net Power, runs at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

"In Lexington, thoroughbred is king," Rogers says. "There's an incredible awe of the whole business."

The play explores the sometimes unsavory issues that go on behind the scenes.

"It makes for a great metaphor," Herendeen says. "You have this beauty and elegance, but you also have this corruption."

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