‘Fever Dreams’ in rep at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Two men and a woman in a complex relationship triangle confront their hard truths.

Regrets of middle age. Existential dread. A family tragedy. A complex relationship triangle, filled with betrayals. Long-held secrets revealed, and long-withheld truths told, with life-altering consequences. Familiar ingredients all, woven by playwright Jeffrey Lieber into a fabric that never fails to be cleverly fluent, is often extremely funny, and focuses on what Lieber calls “our ability to live with real truth.” Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) is one of five new plays running in repertory this month at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Real truth has been hard to come by among Zachary (Tim Decker), his lover Adele (Marika Engelhardt), and her husband Miller (Stef Tovar). We first see Zachary and Adele meeting for their almost annual tryst at his vacation cabin, a setup reminiscent of the 1970s play and movie Same Time Next Year. She has strict rules about their interaction, principally that they discuss little of what happens in their lives in the real world, beyond what Zach calls “the wall.” Zach wants to see over the wall, contemplating a life with Adele on the other side.

Stef Tovar as Miller and Marika Engelhardt as Adele in the world premiere of ‘Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction)’ by Jeffrey Lieber at CATF in 2023. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Enter Miller, whose presence is distinctly not in accord with the rules. Miller and Zachary were best friends and bandmates in college, meeting Adele almost simultaneously, in a scene they replay over and over in their differing memories. Miller and Adele both know important things that Zach does not. Life on the other side of the wall is much more complicated than Zach imagines. Particularly in the second act, surprises — some of which feel contrived — come thick and fast, discussion of which would require a lengthy series of spoiler alerts.

All three actors, directed skillfully by Susan V. Booth, deliver Lieber’s rapid-fire lines flawlessly, their comic timing excellent, and their distress credible as they venture further into the perilous territory beyond their intricate web of omissions. The Miller/Zachary relationship gains depth as the play proceeds, not before a scarily hilarious drunken episode leads to a fulfillment of Chekov’s gun principle before intermission.

In an interview for the CATF website, Lieber makes clear his antipathy to religion. “Morality has always been tied to God, and God has always been tied to a structure by which we control people… We make this horrifying construct and say, ‘If you stay on the right side of the line, you get all this great stuff, and if you stay on the wrong side of the line, you go to hell.’ That’s why religion was created, but the actual underpinnings don’t make any sense.” He gives Adele a first-act speech to this effect. Some irony there, in that it is primarily Adele who draws lines and enforces rules controlling Zach and Miller. They collaborate, to be sure, but their role is largely one of acquiescence.

It is also Adele — a research biologist by trade — who talks about an extinct species of beetles, alluded to in the play’s subtitle and pictured on the CATF poster for the play. In this species, she says, a pair of beetles mate, then draw in a second male, whom they kill and use as a medium for hatching their eggs. There is a somewhat labored attempt to make an analogy to the trio’s relationship. Though the script avoids saying so explicitly, it appears that Zach, who has been kept in the dark about many salient facts, is the leading candidate for the extra male role, functioning as a kind of safety valve in the Adele/Miller relationship. All told, the originally intended title of the play, The Other Side of the Wall, works better than the more colorful but obscure title the author and director chose.

The bulk of the play consists of a series of two-character scenes — Zach and Adele, Miller and Zach, Miller and Adele — with the third character absent on a trip to a nearby town or staying in the offstage bedroom. It is only at the conclusion of the play that the three characters interact meaningfully in the same space at the same time. To some degree, this is a structural convenience, though it does serve to underline that what is emotionally a three-cornered relationship has long been severed into its smaller components, to the point that what Lieber calls a “path to redemption” becomes highly problematic for the characters.

Tim Decker as Zachary and Marika Engelhardt as Adele in the world premiere of ‘Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction)’ by Jeffrey Lieber at CATF in 2023. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Misha Kachman’s set is a realistic rendering of the living area and kitchen of Zach’s cabin, featuring a comically balky cabinet door. The backdrop, seen outside the cabin window, is a painterly depiction of a forest in autumn, framed by distant mountains. The beauty of the setting is physically outside the walls of the small space where Zach and Adele enact their attachment. Kachman does well to create space for the actors to maneuver in the narrow confines of the venue’s stage.

It is hard to argue against the proposition that acknowledging even hard truths, rather than relying on easier lies and rationalizations, is a better and healthier way to live. To err, as Lieber comments, “on the side of forgiving ourselves and forgiving each other of our humanness” is a signal virtue, far more important than following sets of rules imposed by ourselves or others. Saying so is not innovative or surprising, but to its credit, the play leaves open the question of what happens after the characters’ artifice is shattered. Having finally confronted their hard truths, will the characters be able to forgive, reimagine their relationships, and live with honesty knowing what they know now?

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) plays through July 29, 2023, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing at the Shepherdstown Opera House, 131 West German Street, Shepherdstown, WV, in repertory with four other CATF plays. See the CATF website (catf.org/2023-schedule) for performance dates and times. Purchase tickets ($70 regular, $60 senior) at catf.org/buy-tickets or through the box office, [email protected] or 681-240-2283.

COVID Safety: There are two mask-required performances (July 16 at 1 pm and July 27 at 6 pm); otherwise, masks are optional.


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