New Plays to Rouse The Social Conscience

Playwrights at Actors Theatre of Louisville tackle issues such as abortion, abuse, and self-esteem with power and clarity

THE advantage in seeing three new American plays in a single day, 10 in a single weekend, is the irresistible vitality you feel at work in the American theater. Excellent productions by first-rate acting and directing talents give new plays the best possible shot at recognition.

In the spirited atmosphere of the 17th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, even lesser works tend to stimulate the viewer's imagination. What may be rather raw writing comes across as robust. What might be merely opaque can appear profound. But the total experience is bound to reacquaint even a jaded appetite with the pleasures of the theater.

This year felt like the Year of the Woman because so much of the programming revolved around issues of particular concern to women. Struggles from abortion rights and wife-battering to the sexual abuse of children and the search for identity found their way into this season's comedies and dramas.

Joan Ackermann, a Massachusetts playwright and founder of the Mixed Company Theatre, presented `Stanton's Garage,' a poignant comedy featuring an odd assortment of troubled and obsessive people. When broken-down cars are brought to this small-town garage, the brilliant mechanic may fix them instantly - or not.

At Stanton's Garage, however, a breakdown leads to the opportunity to think through the meaning of one's life and actions. A doctor on her way to meet her fiance has the chance to think about how manipulative and demanding he is and how much he undermines her self-esteem.

The doctor's soon-to-be stepdaughter reveals an affection and respect for her just when she feels herself most despised - quite a touching moment, if a tad predictable. The two women end up fixing the car themselves.

Other eccentric characters drift through the garage, meeting coincidentally and naturally, offering each other a little wisdom, peace, or renewed affection. Ackermann's generous humanity makes vivid the lives of ordinary people in their environment. She never sinks us in sentimentality because she keeps her pace brisk, her wit sharp, her action clean and clear, and her characters interesting. Nothing very deep here, but cheering, graceful, and basically affirming nonetheless.

`Shooting Simone' is a literate, witty take on the life of Simone de Beauvoir, mother of feminism, and her unconventional, nearly life-long relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, father of Existentialism.

Playwright Lynne Kaufman explores the premier feminist's inconsistent subservience to Sartre with a gleeful resolve not to judge her too harshly. De Beauvoir herself, confronted by a young idealist filmmaker, acknowledges that it was hard enough writing down the philosophy, she shouldn't be expected to have to live it, too.

Despite its good intention and fine production, I found myself irritated with the frivolousness of the subject, of reducing De Beauvoir's life and thought - even her relationship to Sartre - to such flaccid terms. However one feels about the author of "The Second Sex" and her philosophy, there was so much more to say about her than Kaufman manages. What does penetrate the trivialization is a sense of how human and needy even the most solitary of all philosophers might have been.

Without doubt, the most demanding and accomplished of the social-issues plays was Jane Martin's (a pseudonym) `Keely and Du.'

A fundamentalist organization kidnaps a pregnant woman (Keely) who has been raped, incarcerates her in a basement, and tries to force her to bring the fetus to term. Standing kindly guard over Keely is Du, an older woman and a nurse. Martin's forceful, intelligent prose leaves most viewers in a state of rage so profound one can't help feeling manipulated, which is my chief objection to the play.

The playwright doesn't make the mistake of vilifying the fundamentalists. Their arguments are kindly delivered and cogent. But the loudest and most persuasive argument in the play is its central metaphor. Handcuffed to the bed, Keely grows weak, she cannot stand upright or move around. The whole history of the oppression of women - including the "biology is destiny" adage - is thus illustrated in one overwhelming image.

But the play is also about a relationship. The nurse and her charge never alter their opinions, yet, thrown together in such close proximity, they manage to make an authentic relationship that transcends their differences.

Regina Taylor (known primarily to television audiences for her work in the series "I'll Fly Away") builds `Jennine's Diary' around the jazz musical form - telling her story about an African-American woman's search for herself as if it were a jazz song in which the lead player and backup players (like singers) move the story along. Complex and bright, the experimental piece tries for something different.

Of the other social-issues plays, `What We Do With It,' a 10-minute play, takes up the problem of incest - a grown woman confronts her father in a psychiatrist's office. The father denies his crime and blames his daughter. The piece falls apart because it is too much case study, not enough theater.

`Poof!' is another 10-minute play concerned with wife-battering. A battered wife damns her husband to hell, and he disappears in spontaneous combustion. It's a one-joke play that, even at 10 minutes, is too long.

Women were not the only subjects. In Kevin Kling's affecting `The Ice Fishing Play' and Jose Rivera's darkly funny `Tape,' intimations of immortality assert themselves.

The former takes place in a fishing hut on a lake in northern Minnesota. As a man slowly freezes to death, visions of departed loved ones visit him. The playwright captures the very flavor and essence of a sporting subculture most of us have never experienced. Humor and compassion grace this ordinary man's life. No great insights, but a slice of culture worth noting.

"Tape" places an unfortunate man in an antechamber of the afterlife. There he is forced to listen to all the lies - to others and to himself - that he ever told in his life. By far the best of the 10-minute plays, "Tape" assails the viewer's conscience in a single short play. Terrific.

The dullest of the Humana offerings, `Deadly Virtues,' is more performance piece than dramatic art. Boring and pretentious, the piece was adapted for the theater by Brian Jucha, who borrows from a wide variety of sources and tries unsuccessfully to challenge Western notions of "virtue."

For better or worse, the Humana Festival drenches the viewer in the currents of American culture. Themes emerge, as they often do in the best arts festivals, that help the viewer grasp at an intuitive level just what is going on around us.

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