A festival of new American plays. Actors Theatre of Louisville offered slim pickings this year
WHEN they are beating their brows on Broadway about the future of American theater (and when aren't they?), any event promising ``new American plays'' is likely to be stampeded by theatrical movers and shakers. So go the fortunes of the yearly Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL). In nine years, the ATL festival has become one of this country's better-known culture mills, churning out the likes of ``The Gin Game,'' ``Crimes of the Heart,'' and ``Agnes of God.'' Under Jon Jory's direction, more than a few young playwrights, including Marsha Norman, Jane Martin, and Beth Henley, got their start here. In 1980 the theater earned a Tony Award for its unique efforts.Skip to next paragraph
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Lately, however, the theater has run into something of dry spell. Recent festivals have produced smaller ranks of talented new playwrights, and fewer productions have traveled to New York and regional stages. While special visitor weekends continue to draw hundreds of critics, producers, and directors from across the country as well as abroad, many observers acknowledge that ATL's annual offerings reflect more Mr. Jory's own artistic taste than American theater in any nascent stage.
This year continued the slim pickings. Critics hoping to divine the heart of American drama and producers on cultural shopping sprees came away with fewer goods than expected. With two or three exceptions, the dozen new works played as a mixed bag of writing talent and execution. Styles and themes ran the gamut, including stock domestic dramas, political works, a period piece, one good ole boy comedy, and a satiric look at evangelism. Collectively they provided no clear bead on the direction of American theater.
In fact, if anything united the festival entries this year, it was the unrelated factors of brevity and violence. Many of the dozen plays were leftovers from ATL's 1984 Shorts Festival, and more than half were one-acts. In addition, nearly all the plays had staged battles in them, and fight director Steve Rankin was justifiably credited on every program.
One of the festival's most satisfying plays, and one of the few full-length works, was ``Tent Meeting,'' an unusual collaboration written and performed by a trio of Atlanta-based actors -- Rebecca Alworth, Larry Larson, and Levi Lee.
An irreverent look at Southern revivalism and mysticism, ``Tent Meeting'' was not only crisply written and acted, but also topical and refreshingly regional in its roots. The tale of an on-the-lam fundamentalist preacher and his two not-quite-right children, ``Tent Meeting'' celebrated the Second Coming in the form of an infant, Jesus O' Tarbox, whose bassinet glowed in the dark. The play's hilarious conclusion mimicked an actual revival meeting, including audience participation and a baptizing -- of an eggplant.
Another Southern writer, Frank Manley, provided the next burst of excellence with his one-act play ``The Rain of Terror.'' A published poet and professor of English at Emory University, Mr. Manley shows no small promise as a dramatist. In this riveting two-person narrative drama of a retired rural couple who entertain an escaped murderer, Manley has crafted a small but well-made play expertly intertwining the multiple threads of plot, character, and theme.
His efforts are only enhanced by a superb performance by Kathy Bates, perhaps best known to audiences for her role on Broadway in Marsha Norman's `` 'Night, Mother.'' Complete with hairnet, mustache, and meaty, padded body, Bates captured our attention from the start.
Slightly less successful was Manley's second one-act, ``Errand of Mercy,'' an ironic look at the ``good works'' of two women who attempt to temper their own misfortunes by consoling ``worse victims'' than themselves.