LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For most, the biggest reason to visit Louisville would be the Kentucky Derby (coming up May 3). It could also be Hillerich & Bradsby, home of the Louisville Slugger (museum and factory open all year). And according to my cab driver, the biggest draw is the air show, Thunder Over Louisville (Saturday; sorry you missed it).
But for the American theater, Louisville means the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (this year, Feb. 26-April 6). The festival is the crossroads of the not-for-profit American theater, especially when all the plays are up and running on what they call Industry Weekend, with the heaviest concentration of producers, artistic directors, agents and critics from around the country.
This, the festival's 38th year, is also Actors Theatre's 50th. And on top of that, last week's Industry Weekend was the occasion of the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, now in its 40th year. So, anniversaries all around.
Not that you need an anniversary to make Humana special. The premieres of half a dozen plays does that, running in simultaneous repertory in three theaters. And for the critics, there were added meetings, panels and late nights of argument, laughter and nostalgia, plus the occasional sip of Kentucky bourbon.
This was my seventh Humana. I started going in 2001 when the new head of Actors Theatre/Humana was Marc Masterson, just hired away from Pittsburgh's City Theatre. He's moved on to head a theater company out west, but Humana is an addiction you want to feed when you can. You never know whom you'll meet. I was especially pleased this year to visit with two Carnegie Mellon University graduates, actors Larry Powell and Eric Berryman.
Among the ATCA extras was Perspectives in Criticism, a talk given this year not by a critic but a playwright, Lauren Gunderson, who had a lively perspective on what reviews mean to those on the receiving end. (Go to www.americantheatrecritics.org for the text or link to it on YouTube.) And on the final night, ATCA presented its Osborn and Steinberg/ATCA Awards, the latter the largest national cash prize ($40,000) for new plays not yet produced in New York.
There were also those plays to see.
This was my festival favorite, Jordan Harrison's head-spinning time-travel comedy in which a boy turns a crystal doorknob and goes tumbling pell-mell into his future, doubling back, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes in what we'd call reality. The acting by the boy didn't always live up to the play's demands, and there is a danger of drowning in whimsy, but ultimately the play rights itself and achieves a very affecting resolution.
Here, the comedy is that of quotidian life turning sour, as life can do. We get to know two couples, one heterosexual, one gay. Both struggle with the idea of marriage and, of course, money. And sex. The play seems mainly about playwright Dorothy Fortenberry's brisk, clever dialogue, until we gradually discover the characters' deep discontents.
The plot turns on some improbable elements -- launching a gourmet food truck, a radish wedged up a nose and a sudden inheritance -- and I found the woman so destructive it was hard to be sympathetic. The plotting isn't as good as the writing, but there is insight into the discontents of partnership. I'd say this one has a future.
If the woman in "Partners" is irritating, she's nothing compared to the good minister at the heart of Lucas Hnath's play about faith and leadership. His growing church has just paid off its mortgage, and he startles everyone by announcing he doubts the existence of God and, what's more, hell. Resistance is led by his charismatic assistant minister and eventually by his wife.
There's lots of good debate on theology and personal responsibility. I sympathize with the minister but also find him so naive (and irritatingly silent) as to be unbelievable. The assistant (played by Mr. Powell) is much more compelling.
So the play's main effect is to challenge our beliefs. It also upends ideas of presentation, using hand-held microphones not only for a church service but for intimate conversation. Everything is a performance before God -- if God exists.
"brownsville song (b-side for tray)"
Kimber Lee's play is right out of the headlines. It starts with Lena powerfully lamenting her grandson, Tray, killed in a random shooting, then flashes back to tell the story of her raising Tray and his young sister, Devine, after the death of their father. Then the counselor helping Tray prepare a college application turns out to be Devine's mother, now clear of her addiction.
Drama is everywhere. The play has echoes of Rose, Cory and Raynell in "Fences," but it has its own compelling truths, especially anchored in actors Cherene Snow (Lena) and John Clarence Stewart (Tray). Only the ending seems unbelievable, in which Tray recites his too-good-to-be-true college application essay.
I've saved the most perplexing for last. A co-production with SITI Company, it is directed by Anne Bogart, an authentic (but sometimes puzzling) American treasure. Commissioned short pieces by playwrights Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor deal with John Henry, the legendary "steel-driving man." That material is interlayered with music and lyrics and ambitious physical work (lots of running in circles and people as machines) by a well-disciplined SITI ensemble of six.
At about 110 minutes without intermission but with several false endings, it seemed to go on forever -- doubtless to make us experience the stress of what it depicts. But there are wonderful, heartbreaking scenes, usually involving Mr. Berryman as John Henry and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as his long-suffering woman. Now I want to read the text to savor the work of the playwrights, freed of all that SITI physicality.
There were also two programs traditional at Humana, one a trio of 10-minute plays, of which the one that held me most was "Some Prepared Remarks (A History in Speech)" by Jason Gray Platt, in which actor Bruce McKenzie epitomized a life in speeches.
The other was a showcase for the festival's apprentices and interns, "Remix 38," a handful of nine short plays/scenes drawn from "arresting dramatic elements, structural conceits and vivid images from particularly influential plays ... throughout the Festival's rich 38-year history" (according to the program) -- including such well-known playwrights as Beth Henley, Jane Martin, Naomi Wallace and Charles L. Mee.
Humana Festival alumni are themselves a human crossroads of the American theater.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.