There’s no such thing as total freedom, Robert Frost explained in his usual homespun way; there’s just “moving easy in harness.” Freedom, he suggested, happens in the space between your shoulder and the straps, when there’s slack in the guy wires or breathing room within the grip of life. Frost’s definition runs counter to the myth of the American male, the freedom-fighting pioneer who’s restrained only by the limits of available open space and personal courage. But if this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville—where six out of seven offerings were authored by women—is any indication, this image of a more confined freedom fits the American woman’s experience like a too-tight glove. In play after play, men were the ones fashioning the yokes and women the ones looking for room to move.
Take Joan Ackermann-Blount’s Zara Spook and Other Lures. In the festival’s one outright comedy, a young West Virginian named Evelyn is on the way to her first “Bass n’ Gal” fishing championship, a chance to get away from her zealous boyfriend, hang out with a few gal pals and cast about for some serious fish. As her car’s pulling out of the driveway for Truth or Consequences, N.M., the eager beau piles in beside her, takes over the wheel, dominates the conversation and sets off Evie’s nervous habit: mentally typing every word said to her (she’s a secretary at the Men’s World health club when not out angling). Evelyn’s man does more than intrude on her good time—he’s also commandeered her body, impregnating her on the sly.
Or look at Infinity’s House by Ellen McLaughlin. The play’s three overlapping narratives take place in the same part of the Almagorda desert at different historical times. In one, a group of male settlers cut the path west across the country, pulling their womenfolk along. One pioneer tries to teach English to his Native American wife, a new tongue that only limits her ability to express herself. Like the land and the rest of her people, Catches Rain, the young woman, is being domesticated. Another wife-in-tow (played in Louisville by the playwright) has grown wild and mute, perhaps even mad, out in the desert away from her genteel home, until it seems that her only goal is to escape the clutches of her husband’s love. McLaughlin’s dense and ambitious play unfolds as the nation’s railroad is being laid and as the first nuclear bomb is being detonated. By compressing time—past and future are all contained in time present—the dramatist gropes after the personal and global effects of the male pioneer spirit: man’s quest for control and its destructive force. “The more we try to control, the less we are really in control,” says Robert J. Oppenheimer on the eve of his weapon’s initial test.
Masculine control is also of the essence in The Pink Studio, Jane Anderson’s fantasia on the paintings of Henri Matisse. Here the playwright imagines the scenes that might have led to Matisse’s masterworks as the aging French artist, “the father of the wild beasts,” goes in search of his waning manhood through a series of encounters with women. Matisse will define his models in paint for all time, but in the everyday they fight back. His wife steps out in a new yellow dress for an all-night jaunt with a suitor. A prostitute undermines Matisse’s confidence, criticizing his work as “pretty without any balls.” And the madame of a local brothel slaps his face when he tries to prove his passion is intact. Finally, it’s memory, not manhood, that provides the source of inspiration for all of Anderson’s characters—the memory of a first painting, the first sounds of music, the first throes of love.
Men are “completely focused on what they can’t control,” the pseudonymous Jane Martin explains in “Impotence,” one of the more than 30 interlocking monologues in Vital Signs by the author of an earlier Humana success, Talking With. Here too are stories from a number of modern women who wrestle for survival, strength, and a sense of humor when confronted with fathers who leave them, husbands who beat them, gurus who invite them to lie with German Shepherds, and a world that feels increasingly treacherous and pointless.
This worldly unease also pervades In Darkest America, a pair of one-acts by the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates, one of a string of contemporary novelists recently commissioned by ATL to create works for the theatre. (Unlike such predecessors as Harry Crews and William F. Buckley, Oates has written plays before.) In Tone Clusters, a New Jersey couple fields unanswerable questions from the disembodied voice of a talk-show host, who pushes them to explain the brutal murder by their son of a 14-year-old neighborhood girl, a crime the parents desperately deny. The darkness of this couple’s confusion is paralleled by the claustrophobia of conflicted mother-daughter love in Oates’s companion piece, The Eclipse, in which a prominent feminist sacrifices her career for the love of her increasingly delusional mother.
And again we feel this gnawing unease in the dark absurdity of Elizabeth Egloff’s The Swan. A young woman nurses to life a swan that crashes into her picture window one night. When a naked man emerges from under the swan’s down, Dora teaches him language and falls in love with him in spite of the warnings of her married boyfriend, “a great big debacle of a man” who believes that Bill, the swan, is the devil. Dora ultimately chases Bill away but then grows crazy for his return, until she loses all sense of time and begins to sprout wings and feathers. Somewhere between the Leda of myth and Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Dora is a woman brought to life by contact with this strange creature and destroyed by the need with which this new life fills her.
The principal joy of this year’s Humana Festival was seeing these disparate plays (chosen, according to ATL producing director Jon Jory, on their individual merits and not as part of a connected cluster) bounce common themes and ideas off of each other in repertory. The process only highlighted the singularity of each writer’s voice: from Ackermann-Blount’s deft down-home comedy (particularly well-served by director Kyle Donnelly and a cast that included Ackerman-Blount herself), to Egloff’s absurd lyricism, to the nerve-raw psychological probing of Oates.
Romulus Linney’s 2, the festival’s only play by a man, provided the exception to prove the rule. A skillful portrait of Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering, this prison/courtroom drama, depicting Hitler’s second-in-command as he brilliantly faces down accusers in Nuremberg, explores the sensibility behind man’s quest for control over others. There are few women here. There is only man run amok. If a Hitler rises again, the charismatic Goering explains, “I will bind myself to him again, laughing like a man, a good number two.” After all, he hypothesizes, that is what men do, and “there is nothing worse than a man.”
This object lesson in power and control underscored the concerns of the festival’s women playwrights. It also provided the most disturbing offstage moment of the year’s event: the spectacle of audience members rising to their feet to applaud the actor playing Goering. While clearly a salute to William Duff-Griffin’s tour-de-force performance, this response echoed too strongly another kind of ovation: the fervor of popular support for Hitler’s reign of evil. Against the background of women’s struggle to survive the male genie out of its bottle, the sight was unsettling.
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