Fresh air for American theater

In a word, it was better. The cradle that rocked such theatrical Wunderkinder as D.L. Coburn, Beth Henley, and Marsha Norman into national prominence - Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) - has this year produced several new credible dramas. While not necessarily Pulitzer Prize contenders, as were some earlier Louisville progeny, several of this season's plays will surely hit the New York stages before long.

Under the direction of Jon Jory, ATL has forged a unique reputation as one of the most consistent sources of new drama in the country. Its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays - which many observers consider the crystal ball of American theater - has for many become a virtual cultural must-see here in the bluegrass. Every year hundreds of critics, agents, and producers congregate for three days and nights in hopes of divining the future of American drama. Past ATL pay dirt includes ''The Gin Game,'' ''Crimes of the Heart,'' and ''Getting Out.''

But this year's festival, now in its eighth year, saw the Tony Award-winning theater inching away from its stock in trade - naturalistic dramas of the disenfranchised who wax ineloquent around the kitchen table. Under Jory's able direction, this season's offerings of nine new plays embraced a more disparate dramatic view.

It was all to the good.

While homespun, realistic plays exhuming Middle America's middle class were still in obvious ascendancy - notably ''Independence,'' by Lee Blessing, and ''Courtship,'' by Horton Foote - there were some dramatic upstarts of a profoundly political bent. Admittedly, they varied in quality: ''Execution of Justice,'' by Emily Mann, was one of the festival's strongest pieces, while '' 007 Crossfire,'' by ATL actor Ken Jenkins, was one of the weakest. But these risk-taking plays were breaths of dramaturgical fresh air blowing across a stage that has often been stifled by a surfeit of mid-life Angst in dialogue form. Also, the plays' production - with crisper and more complex staging, tighter acting, and stronger directing - added to the general strength of this year's program.

Clearly ATL's most ambitious work of the festival was Mann's ''Execution of Justice,'' a nonfiction play about the 1978 murder by Dan White of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and homosexual city supervisor Harvey Milk. While structurally less successful than either of the festival's two other highlights (''Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,'' by John Patrick Shanley, or ''The Octette Bridge Club,'' by P.J. Barry), Mann's play is of such scope and reach that it remains an unusually strong work for the Humana Festival. At the very least, it is a compelling look at one of the country's most complex and controversial criminal cases.

Unfortunately, by confining her material largely to trial testimony, Mann - who won six Obies for her earlier social documentary play, ''Still Life'' - restricts her play's emotional and intellectual range. We do hear from Harvey Milk, because he made a tape before his assassination. But George Moscone's position goes virtually unexplored. The rest of the characters are trial witnesses, lawyers, and interviewees whose ''testimony,'' including the infamous ''Twinkie Defense,'' forms the basis for a work that becomes more an examination of the nation's value structure than an exploration of individual character. Although largely silent on stage as the brooding defendant, John Spencer in his sniveling portrayal of Dan White is eerily effective and of sufficient strength to keep the production from being overwhelmingly one-sided. With judicious pruning and amplification, this play's effectiveness could equal its convictions.

''Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,'' by the relatively unknown John Patrick Shanley, was the obvious favorite of this year's festivalgoers. It's a tough two-person drama about a pair of emotionally scarred Bronx losers who painfully discover trust and self-respect in their oddly blossoming relationship. Having the kind of urban tensile strength one associates with playwright David Mamet, Shanley's play nonetheless soars on an undercurrent of optimism - straining dramatic credibility, but playing well to the audience's response to the two characters. Shanley's writing is of the terse Mametesque style that says more with less but also keeps the humor loping effectively beside the horror. It is the level of acting, however, excellently executed by June Stein and John Turturro, that ultimately gives the play its undeniable urgency. This is a play that clearly has a future.

Another audience favorite was ''The Octette Bridge Club.'' P. J. Barry is a former artistic director of the Hudson Guild Theatre. A comedy-drama based upon the unusual but apparently actual circumstances of eight bridge-playing Irish sisters living in Rhode Island during World War II, Barry's work is a fond if slightly nostalgic look at sibling strengths and shortcomings. One can easily see this both as a star vehicle on Broadway next season and as a popular choice among community theaters. ATL's production sets a good precedent: It is enchanting and well cast. The opening scene - eight energetically gossipy sisters all dressed up in black crape and crystal necklaces posing for a Providence Journal photographer - is irresistible.

Further use of the family as dramatic vehicle came in several other works, each marching to the beat of a different theme. In Blessing's ''Independence,'' the family unit functions as emotional quicksand presided over by a strong-willed if slightly unbalanced mother. Her three daughters parade a variety of defense mechanisms that often seem pat and predictable but occasionally crackle with life - especially at the hands of actress Deborah Hedwall, who plays the eldest daughter, Kess. Unfortunately, the most potentially interesting character, the disturbed mother, is explored only in terms of cliches: Her portrayal by Sylvia Gassel does little to illuminate the enigmatic role.

In ''Husbandry,'' by longtime ATL actor and director Patrick Tovatt, home life fares better. Tovatt uses the family as a way to explore the dissolution of the American family-owned farm - a topical if unique subject for dramatic inquiry. Tovatt's first act is perhaps overly studied as he carefully lays out the ideological struggle between the aging down-on-the-farm parents, the career-minded daughter-in-law, and the ambivalent son. The author comes into stronger voice in the second half: The play becomes a nonsentimental and relatively provocative drama, especially when aided by solid performances from Miss Hedwall as the strong-willed daughter-in-law and Gloria Cromwell as the equally powerful mother, who demands, ''I want to know if families mean anything anymore.''

Horton Foote, the playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter who wrote the films ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' and ''Tender Mercies,'' also deals with the family in ''Courtship,'' the fourth in his cycle of eight plays about a turn-of-the-century Texas family. Foote's excellent ear for the rambling gossip that seems to constitute Southern dialogue is right on the mark, as are the performances by Susan Bruyn and Joseph Adams as the hesitant young lovers at odds with repressive parents. Foote develops his characters with a sure and unrushed hand, although some scenes could have been trimmed without loss of impact.

''Lemons,'' by Kent Broadhurst (a former ATL writer-in-residence), puts the author's tape-recorder ear to good use in a hilarious, broad comedy about a day in the life of an on-the-skids auto dealership. With an elaborate chrome-filled set by ATL designer Paul Owen, numerous sight gags, and Broadhurst's excellent timing, ''Lemons'' was wonderful comic relief - if ultimately more suited to the cheaper, wackier rhythms of TV-sitcoms.

Bringing up the rear this year were ''The Undoing,'' by William Mastrosimone, and Ken Jenkins's ''007 Crossfire.'' Jenkins was commissioned by the ATL to write a dramatic response to the downing of the South Korean airliner last year. It's a viable subject, but his three-ring-circus approach founders on intellectual pretense and amateurish staging. As for Mastrosimone, his recurring themes of male-female vulnerability and brutality (which he successfully handled in his earlier work ''Extremities'') are simply tiresome and repetitive in ''The Undoing.'' While the grimly realistic chicken slaughterhouse set was yet another tribute to designer Owen, one wished Mr. Mastrosimone would move on to a new dramatic vision.

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