People are sick and the American family is a lemon. This was the resounding thematic consensus running through the morbid but frequently thrilling lineup at the 22nd annual Humana Festival at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville in late March.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the festival, a justly respected slice of theatrical Americana whose general environment veers from somber celebration to thespian sideshow, is renowned for being an extended family of theatre artists: After all, perversity is the usual outcome when a bunch of theatre people get together, right? The festival’s six new full-length plays, including works from the pseudonymous Jane Martin and William Mastrosimone (of Extremities fame), strangely echoed the Jonesboro, Ark., elementary school shootout that had occurred a few days prior: In the majority of the plays, children characters—and the families they came from—were either threatened or threatening. Kids and the family unit have rarely seemed more imperiled.
But the question that truly took up residence in my mind the better part of the butt-challenging weekend (six full-length plays and a bill of short ones in 55 hours a bit rough) was far more elemental: When does reality end and performance begin? And which is more dynamic? The thought first invaded me as I took a much-needed break at a nearby park. Under a deliciously hot spring sun I observed two hormone-pumped teenage guys overtake an outdoor theatre space—an Old Globe-ish jumble of brown-painted plywood that they commandeered into an unofficial playground of low-tech gymnastics and macho posturing. They broke bottles, smoked cigarettes, swung from rafters and frightened children playing in the grass nearby. It was some of the most dynamic theatre I had seen in Louisville thus far. But later that afternoon I witnessed something equally resonant: Naomi Wallace’s gorgeous, rough-hewn effort, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.
The play, a raw and vigorously abstract two-acter somewhat tenuously staged by Adrian Hall, is an eloquent examination of how economics and environment can twist and squelch adolescent dreams and desires. Set in a fictitious 1930s rural American town—a depressed one-factory community that calls to mind eastern Kentucky—it centers around Dalton Chance (Michael Linstroth), a fey 15-year-old who’s fallen under the spell of tomboy-ish Pace Creagan (Tami Dixon), a local tough girl who’s far more boy than girl. Over the course of numerous incantation-like encounters, Pace attempts to teach Dalton the finer merits of playing chicken with oncoming trains, a dangerous action that becomes a metaphor for dodging sexual awakening. Trestle culminates in a chilling climax that cuts to the core of the American penchant for repressing sex, laughter and rebellion—you know, the things that come most naturally. Wallace, a hyper-talented writer whose work occasionally yearns for tighter structuring, has created an exquisite Bastard Out of Carolina-like landscape that resonates like a fierce noontime whistle.
Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends is something of an anti-Naomi Wallace play; it’s concerned with the kind of emotional logic and dramatic structure that a work like Trestle all but ignores—but that doesn’t stop it from being equally powerful. Chronicling two strained suburban New York marriages—Gabe and Karen (Adam Grupper and Linda Purl) and Beth and Tom (the lovely Devora Millman and David Byron)—the latest work from the author of The Loman Family Picnic is a sharply rendered indictment of the narcissism of contemporary relationships.
The play opens with a bang: At a dinner party thrown by Gabe and Karen, Beth announces that she and Tom are calling it quits. Once the dust settles, Gabe and Karen frantically examine their own marriage. From all exterior appearances, they are comfortable—successful food writers who live in a Pottery Barn-laden world of matching linen and cold-pressed olive oil, they are the very picture of yuppie bliss. But there is something rotten in Westchester: Gabe and Karen uncomfortably realize that their marriage has succumbed to the bitter taste of unreleased hostility. As Tom ultimately says of Gabe, “He’s been miserable so long, he doesn’t know what it’s like not to be miserable.”
Marguiles has crafted a play rich with unsettling 20th-century archetypes—empty, neurotic characters who view children as inconveniences and think that spiritual independence is something that can be gotten from a mere trip to Tuscany. Though Dinner With Friends has the irritating habit of manipulating audience sympathies for particular characters in tennis-match fashion, the crystalline detailing of Margulies’s dialogue saves the day. It is the play most likely to succeed outside Louisville.
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