This week’s assignment: five shows, at the height of the season. Volley for serve:

1. Hannah Blevins calls them “America’s third world”: the close-knit coal-mining communities of southwest Virginia she’s been researching and conducting interviews in during the past two years. She now reports that things have changed radically since the days of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Wordshed Productions presents Out of the Dark, her collection of stories from present-day Virginia coal miners, 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday in UNC’s Brigham Hall.

2. The apologies began before the performance, in Leon Katz’ production notes to PlayMakers Rep’s Caesar and Cleopatra (**). True, they concede, Cleo wasn’t the clueless 16-year-old director David Hammond and actor Charity Henson have–well, “developed” doesn’t seem quite the right word. But that, we’re reassured, is just a necessary device to amplify the greatness of, if not the real Caesar, then at least what that Caesar could have been, and most importantly, what governance should be at its best. Right.

But after Ra’s opening prologue was first gutted and then fashioned into a cell-phone advisory for the front of a theme park ride, the most patriarchal piece of theater I’ve seen in years appeared to celebrate the concept of empire more than critique it. When Christopher Coucill’s CEO of a Caesar remains the site of all wisdom, impervious to the inferior intellect and not-quite-womanly wiles of his teenage ward, dramatic tension is sacrificed to a string of Shavian object lessons. Think Father Knows Bestbut 22 centuries back thataway.

3. With “management” advising us that Federal agents might require us at any point to show ID and state the purpose of our presence due to “suspected terrorists,” playwright Jim Grimsley’s 1987 White People (***) occasionally seemed a work more prescient than satirical. But this wide-ranging crazy quilt of blackouts, monologues and short scenes about the odd behavior of its titled subjects veered, radically at times, from high satire to low sketch comedy and back before ending on the darkest–but richest–moment of the evening.

Using two stuffed animals, a peerless Marcia Edmundson portrayed a homeless woman mimicking the fatuous dialogue of couples from a prior scene–sending up the self-absorption of our society. Barbette Hunter fell victim to the game show/commercial, “Is It Clean Enough?” before Lauren Shouse, Jordan Smith and a smug Sharlene Thomas embodied the sexual power structure in “The Mistress.” In the one disastrous miscalculation of the night, simultaneous monologues rendered overlapping stories about fathers completely unintelligible, before Southey Blanton arrested us as an autobiographical performer who upends the restaging of his troubled childhood by refusing to start his play, “Critical Mass.” When his scene finally began, Clarence Odom and Edmundson fully enacted the pathos of abuse.

4. Strongest show of the week: Private Eyes (****), at Peace College. Since playwright Steven Dietz keeps this puzzle box about marital infidelity among actors in spin, it takes most of the first act just to figure out who’s zooming who. Under director Carnessa Ottelin, D. H. Johnson makes director Adrian a skuzzy (but up-front) sexual opportunist, and razor-witted accomplice Hillary Bang a creature out of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” But Jim Moscater’s the jackknife at the center of this tale, as Matthew, the man who can’t quite stop reediting the past to his leery therapist, Frank (Gina Kelly). Kathryn Fuller displays considerable comedic chops again as the enigmatic Cory.

5. Right behind it: Flying Machine’s Dinner with Friends (***1/2), at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre. Since we’ve already raved about the script (after PlayMakers’ January 2003 production, durham/2003-01-22/ae2), we’ll congratulate seldom-seen director Mary Rowland for crafting four believable characters in four changing relationships. J. Chachula’s Tom and Robin Monteith’s Beth get at the pain, the self-serving and the impractical longings of a couple suddenly in divorce. The instability in that marriage threatens friends, low-key Gabe (Jerome Johnson) and Karen (Marta King), testing their loyalties–and their abilities to keep their own lines of communication open.

With women and men nodding their heads or groaning at different places, Donald Margulies’ play remains a two-act diagnostic for relationships with significant others. Acting this good makes the stage a mirror for us to clearly see ourselves in couples–warts and all. Also note: The venue for Duke Theater Studies’ free staged reading of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America II: Perestroika has changed to Nelson Music Room, room 204 of East Duke–for one performance only: Tuesday, May 2 at 2 p.m.

Byron Woods can be reached at