Theater in the rough. Or rather, theater in the heart of bluegrass country. In less than a decade, the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville has become what many consider the theatrical watering hole this side of the Appalachians.
Under the direction of Jon Jory, Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has forged a unique reputation as a consistent source of new American drama. During its annual six-week festival, this Tony Award-winning regional theater becomes a cheerful cultural bazaar where hundreds of writers, actors, producers, and critics mix as comfortably as the roar of the crowd blends with the smell of the bluegrass.
While director Jory denies that his theater is a farm club for Broadway, no one can overlook such past ATL hits as D.L. Coburn's ''The Gin Game,'' Beth Henley's ''Crimes of the Heart,'' John Pielmeier's ''Agnes of God,'' and William Mastrosimone's ''Extremities'' - all Broadway and Off Broadway plays that originated on the Louisville stage.
Such a track record encourages both the professional and dilletantish theater lover to come peruse the dozen or so yearly offerings - to search for tomorrow's New York hit and sample America's current theatrical vision.
While the motto of the festival was clearly ''the play's the thing,'' the acting, directing, and staging of the plays were consistently strong. In fact, the festival's real strength, from the playwright's perspective, is that it often provides the first full-scale production for fledgling works.
This year's festival (which ended April 3), entitled ''Words,'' might better have been labeled ''Values,'' or even ''Dogs.'' For nearly every one of the 13 plays (8 full-length and 5 one-acts) possessed a strongly regressive look by characters weaned on 1960s-style values coming under 1980s-style scrutiny. If no character was pounding his chest and crying, ''I guess I am kind of overwhelmed by modern life,'' then there was sure to be a tape-recorded sound of a dog barking somewhere offstage - a recurring motif not lost on the 160 or so critics and observers who attended a recent marathon weekend showing.
This year, Kathleen Tolan's A Weekend Near Madison turned a potentially banal theme - billed as ''the realities of '70s alternative life styles (brought) face to face with the complexities . . . of the '80s'' - into a surprisingly affecting drama, despite some unsavory subject matter.
Under Emily Mann's skilled direction, Miss Tolan's play avoided the young dramatist's nemesis of sketching stereotypes rather than creating full-fledged, sympathetic characters. Her compilation of characters - husband, wife, brother, and former girlfriend-turned-feminist gathered in a farmhouse for a reunion-cum-reconciliation weekend - is full of dramatic possibilities, nearly all of which are explored. Even when the lines are laughably typical of late 1970s liberals - ''Let's see, is that what I want? That's the important question , 'What about me?' '' - one still perceives the streak of humanity through all the psycho-babble.
The new work was helped by some well-cast actors, most notably Robin Groves, Mary McDonnell, and the brilliant Holly Hunter. And when Randle Mell as Jim, the former boyfriend, beat his chest in desperation and demanded, ''I am a man. I am a man. What do you want from me?'' the production touched a nerve.
Other efforts in this direction were less successful. James McClure, author of the well-received ''Lone Star'' and ''Private Wars,'' offered up his latest play, Thanksgiving. But whereas Miss Tolan found her characters and stayed with them, Mr. McClure seemed to stumble and lose his way.
Another old-friends-gathered-for-the-weekend drama, Mr. McClure's play is caught in a quandary - how to make the characters and their oh-so-modern problems (such as whether to have a child or not) poignant as well as humorous. The way Mr. McClure has written some of his dialogue - ''I decided we should turn off the TV and interact,'' ''I love seeing you all be women together'' - gets a laugh, but also trivializes his characters right when we want to be moved by them. His concluding scene, conducted on a Japanese footbridge in a symbolic scene of anguished transition, is simply contrived and further negates the characters' believability.
The one real star in the fairly strong cast was Murphy Guyer, a funny ATL actor who has also tried his hand at playwriting. His first full-length play, Eden Court, was offered during the festival to a mixed response. Mr. Guyer enlivened his own comedy by playing Shroeder Duncan, yet another man-approaching-30, stuck this time in a mobile home with his Elvis-loving, dimwitted wife, Bonnie, and a wily house mouse, a not-too-well-handled device. Bonnie, as played by the compelling Holly Hill, was much more appealing than the sometimes overly blustery Mr. Guyer.
Again, this is a dramatic attempt to blend poignant life crises - ''I'm tired of waiting for something to happen, I want to makem something happen'' - with outright humor. In this instance the humor, albeit contrived, wins. (The one exception is a short scene with Miss Hill in bathrobe and sans makeup, kneeling on her garish couch and singing in a wavering little-girl voice, ''We're caught in a trap. I can't walk out. Because I love you too much, baby.'') Let's see this actress again, anywhere, anytime. With her natural Alabama twang and fresh-faced charm, Miss Hill was as captivating as the actress Mia Dillon was in the original Broadway run of ''Crimes of the Heart.''
Mr. Guyer and his play are typical of the mood at ATL. Not only is his theme of modern bewilderment a popular one, but the phenomenon of actors becoming playwrights is increasingly encouraged under the watchful eye of director Jory. More than half of this year's dramas were written by ATL actors. While this creates a product that is undoubtedly playable onstage, it is, more often than not, a drama relatively unsophisticated in structure and in use of language.
After three days of viewing, it became profoundly evident which plays were crafted by actors and which by writers. Barbara Field's Neutral Countries, and Tim Mason's In a Northern Landscape, which starred the talented young actor Reed Birney, were both flawed but refreshing for the sheer poetry often voiced on stage and the authors' interest in creating a drama situated outside the 20th century. John Pielmeier's, Courage, a perhaps overly long monologue about the life and loves of literary figure J. M. Barrie, also falls into this latter classification.
The exception to the above actors-turned-playwrights rule, other than Kathleen Tolan, is Kent Broadhurst. A skillfull actor, Mr. Broadhurst appears to be just as skillful a dramatist. His appearence in ''Neutral Countries'' was the brightest thing in the play, and his own creation, The Continual Acceptance of the Near Enough, was clearly the leader of the pack of this year's one-acts.
Like his previous play presented at ATL last year, ''They're Coming to Make It Brighter,'' Mr. Broadhurst's new drama deals a crushingly satiric blow to the commercial side of the art world. In this tight, two-person drama - the undiscovered, genius painter vs. the powerful gallery dealer, played convincingly by John Vennema and Frederic Major - Mr. Broadhurst demonstrates a tape-recorder ear and flair for dramatic tension as well as comedy.
The other one-acts - the amusing Bartok as Dog, by Patrick Tovatt, and the somewhat Mamet-like Partners, by Dave Higgins - were only slightly less arresting. William Mastrosimone, who electrified audiences two years ago with the ATL premiere of ''Extremities,'' seems to repeat his male-brutality vs. female-vulnerability theme in his new but decidely less-successful play, A Tantalizing. Actor Larry Block gave a strong performance, as he did in Jeffrey Sweets' The Value of Names, an exploration of the familiar subject of Hollywood blacklisting.
In the case of Adele Shanks' Sand Castles, the California beach set was the main reason to stage, or sit through, this shockingly trite examination of the day in the life of sunbathers. But such attention to physical detail is almost overwhelming in this year's co-winner of ATL's Great American Play Contest, Food From Trash, by former filmmaker Gary Leon Hill.
A truly apocalyptic play, ''Food From Trash'' is probably the first stage drama to confront the topical but all too real problem of toxic waste disposal. This play, directed by Jon Jory and staged on a realistically dumplike set designed by ATL's talented designer Paul Hills, thrusts us into the middle of a landfill. Jory and Owen constructed an intimidating stage set in a warehouse replete with dirt floor, piles of trash bags, two cars, and a garbage truck.
This larger-than-life setting rather encouraged the actors literally to shout to be heard. Thus there was frequently too much noise emanating from center stage, which obscured the more subtle aspects of the play. The author's writing also suffers from a rather heavy-handed docu-drama approach, especially in the play's final moments.
But this is Mr. Hill's first stage play, and one can't help admiring its passion while yet wondering who will have the nerve, and resources, to stage it again. The energy and enthusiasm so evident in the production could serve as a metaphor for the risk-taking festival as a whole.