What does it mean to be an American at the end of the 20th century? That question, though never explicitly articulated, became the underlying mantra of this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville. Whether by accident or design, or perhaps as some expression of historical inevitability, the 19th annual festival’s convocation of playwrights all turned time and again toward the place we call home. That they found it paranoid, splintered, angry and dream-dependent should come as no surprise to anyone with an eye toward the real thing.
Watching the works of eleven playwrights on ATL’s three stages over the course of a single weekend provides, of course, a particularly heightened opportunity to make connections. Not only themes, but jokes and even images seemed to float from play to play, leaving the critics to keep a running tally over drinks: How many references to Prozac? How many variations on the theme of the Ideal(ized) Woman?
In Regina Taylor’s sprawling Between the Lines, the contrasting paths of two college roommates are charted in detail: A white woman, Becca (Dee Pelletier), moves from a place of superficial politics and privilege to extreme radicalism, while her black friend, Nine (Ellen Bethea), slowly abandons and sells out her own idealism and political activism. While this compelling double arc ultimately gets lost when the play, heatedly directed at ATL by Shirley Jo Finney, resorts to melodrama, it proved a prescient introduction to the festival’s concerns: What does it mean to be engaged in the world? To make a commitment, political as well as personal? When we don’t make that commitment, what do we settle for? And what, ultimately, is the cost of what we settle for?
Yet while these concerns are undeniably weighty, too often the works surrounding them proved slight at best. When, for instance, the three titular Middle-Aged White Guys of Jane Martin’s play (directed by Jon Jory as a testosterone-driven parody of Americana) stand literally naked before the audience, preparing to atone for the sins of the “white guy club” by walking across the country with a sign reading “I’m sorry,” one could feel a palpable audience response: Even as satire, it isn’t enough. And despite crowding their plays with images of an America on the brink of (self-)destruction, many of the playwrights still retreated into a hazy neverland of personal dysfunction.
Take Jose Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics, an elegiac but overwrought play about a night when love literally makes time stand still. Or Marsha Norman’s Trudy Blue, an art-bleeding-into-life drama of a discontented woman (Joanne Camp) who either finds or loses herself Norman leaves it purposefully vague—in the heroine of her latest novel. Norman is a skillful writer and Rivera a gifted one, but Trudy Blue‘s technical tricks and Cloud‘s lyrical poetry (and powerful staging by Tina Landau) couldn’t mask their empty centers.
Lack of heart isn’t a problem for Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon, about a young Armenian couple—a “picture-bride” and her photographer husband, recent immigrants to Milwaukee in the 1920s—trying to maneuver the emotional distance between the horrors of the Armenian holocaust and the promise of new lives in the United States. As directed by Laszlo Marton and beautifully performed by Vilma Silva and Faran Tahir, Beast on the Moon did, in fact, develop like a series of snapshots, each scene a variation on the one before.
The most evocative (and provocative) plays of the festival—Richard Dresser’s often-hilarious Below the Belt and Donald Margulies’s gorgeously written, deeply affecting July 7, 1994—also examined the personal, but in the context of larger, well-defined political and social landscapes. Set in “an industrial compound in a distant land,” Below the Belt skewers the me-first ethos (as well as both the meanness and the meaninglessness) of corporate America by suggesting that, if you can’t beat ’em, beating ’em up may in the end prove the best possible method of male bonding. Directed by Gloria Muzio, the play was performed with razor-sharp precision by ATL veterans William McNulty, V Craig Heidenreich and Fred Major—all three paragons of bluff, bluster and fastidiously well-developed paranoia.
Margulies’s hour-long July 7, 1994—which played on a double-bill with Jane Anderson’s slight but amusing Tough Choices for the New Century, both directed by Lisa Peterson with acute attention to detail and nuance—covers a single day in the life of its central character, Kate (the riveting Susan Knight), a doctor in an inner-city clinic. With deceptively simple slice-of-life ease, Margulies uses the doctor’s casual conversations about the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a means to explore how we are divided by race, class and gender. (Which is why, despite the play’s specificity of time and place, it won’t easily seem dated.) Within the play’s domestic frame—it begins and ends with Kate and her husband (Kenneth L. Marks) at home, talking about their young son—Margulies moves from rage to tenderness, blaming no one, but letting no one off the hook. July 7, 1994 goes to the heart, and though it offers no answers, the play’s wrenching, generous spirit gives salve to the pain that envelops, to use a well-worn phrase, the way we live now.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!