Ashland New Plays Festival returns next weekend, running from the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 18, until Sunday, Oct. 22. Now in its 26th season, the festival will focus its attentions on the diversity, resilience, and complexity of women in society with four new plays.

The first play presented will be "A Dark Sky Full of Stars" by Don Zoldis — a prolific playwright who has penned 97 plays which have been produced more than 10,000 times in more than 60 countries around the world. Mr. Zoldis' latest offering dives headfirst into the controversial and complex issues of police shootings. Zoldis, the father of two sons, has a particularly personal relationship with the play, which comes with the added twist of being made up of an all-female cast for this reading — despite being written with both male and female roles. The play will star Emily Ota, who is currently also performing in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In "What We Were" by Blake Hacker, three adult sisters who have survived childhood abuse go through their own individual and combined processes to wrestle the demons of their youth. Child sexual abuse is rampant in the United States but is seldom directly addressed or discussed. From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). In addition to being a playwright, Hacker is also a Broadway actor, company member of Undermain Theatre and assistant professor of theater at Southern Methodist University School for the Arts. He has directed and taught theater internationally under a Fulbright Scholarship. Hacker says he was "moved by the pain of" his three central characters while writing the play, which stars Jamie Ann Romero, Lolly Ward, and Sherilyn Lawson.

In "Sofonisbam," Callie Kimball tells the story of real-life 16th century Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who served as a court painter and lady-in-waiting to King Philip II and Queen Isabel of Spain for more than two decades. Played by Nancy Rodriguez — who recently stunned audiences at OSF with her compelling portrayal of Josefina in "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles" — Sofonisba was a favorite of King Phillip after the death of Queen Isabel, and was supported by a royal pension into her old age. She lived well into her 90s and was an early example of feminist independence in an aggressively patriarchal environment.

“I have settled on the lines I’ve drawn for myself and am glad to have had such say and choosing,” says Sofonisba in the play. "If I am to see all that I see, I may as well paint it, for I am given more latitude in my brush than I am in my speech.”

The final play on the ANPF roster this season is "Go. Please. Go." by Emily Feldman. The play spans 70 years in the lives of two people, a couple played by Kris Danford and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend. The two begin their story with a mutual decision to split up, but somehow end up spending the following decades co-existing together in the same apartment. Through living together and sharing space, the two evolve their love through the everyday ups and downs of their shared experience. Feldman has been a Heideman Award finalist, the Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference, and Core Apprentice at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. She’s also been a resident artist at SPACE on Ryder Farm and Atlantic Center for the Arts and recently completed her MFA at UC San Diego. Her other plays include "Three Women in Four Chairs" and "The Mango Farmer of Vermont."

ANPF will open at the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St. in Ashland, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, followed by matinee and evening performances at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, closing with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 22. Tickets are $20 and are available both online and at the door, subject to availability.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.