If the Ashland New Plays Festival's opening night play, "Countdown to the Happy Day," is an example of what to expect during this week's readings, then audience members are in for a treat.

If the Ashland New Plays Festival's opening night play, "Countdown to the Happy Day," is an example of what to expect during this week's readings, then audience members are in for a treat.

The ANPF is an international playwriting competition that culminates in the reading of four new plays selected out of hundreds of submissions. The readings often feature professionals from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as community actors.

"Countdown to the Happy Day," written by Tom Stephens and directed by Claudia Alick and Brian Demar Jones, features OSF actors Kimberly Scott and Christopher Livingston, with stage directions read by Jones. The play is an emotional two-character drama about the chance involvement of Gertie, a psychologically and physically wounded bag lady, and Cervin, a troubled but cocky 15-year-old boy.

In gritty street language, the two African-American characters dialogue sharply, like worn gears grinding, seeking a connection. Intermittent outbursts of profanity lend an authentic sense of place and help create the palpable atmosphere of despair in which the characters live. Despite both being damaged, or perhaps because of it, Gertie and Cervin form a shaky bond and grow to care for one another. While the themes explored are dark and at times heartbreaking, the play is also laced with humor, wit and even a glimmer of hope.

It is surprising how quickly one can forget that the actors are reading from their scripts. Scott and Livingston give powerful performances and the audience is allowed to focus on the story, the strong script and vivid dialogue.

The festival also offers audiences a chance to see another side of theater. There is so much grand theater in Ashland, it is sometimes hard to remember that a good play doesn't always need a big set and elaborate costumes. Good actors, tight writing and reasonably comfortable seating can be enough.

The winning plays are all still considered works in progress. After the readings, the audience gets a chance to speak with the playwright, offer feedback and even respond to his questions. On this night, the play's author was largely praised for his well-crafted script and emotionally tight scenes. He was asked if he, a white man, struggled with creating authentic street dialect and creating black characters so unlike himself. Stephens admitted to some struggle with dialogue, but emphasized that, above all else, his play was a human story.

"Countdown to the Happy Day" will show again at 8 p.m. today, Oct. 21. There will be two readings each of the other winning plays, "Couples," "Spin, or Twilight of the Bohemians," and "Fernando" as performances continue through the week, ending with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Oct. 23. All performances are at the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

Advance tickets are available for $15 through www.showtix4u.com, at Paddington Station in Ashland, by calling 541-488-7995, or by email to Tickets@AshlandNewPlays.org. For more information, visit AshlandNewPlays.org.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.