In 1976, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville (ATL) produced two new works at its first Humana Festival of New American Plays. One quickly faded into obscurity; the other was D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 and helped launch the festival as a lasting forum for new plays and playwrights.
ATL’s Humana Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has become a theatrical institution, attracting an international audience of playwrights, critics and representatives from theaters all over the world. Over its lifetime, the festival has produced more than 200 short, one-act and full-length plays. ATL considered unsolicited scripts until 1988, when the task of screening the thousands of submissions that poured in from hopeful playwrights became overwhelming. While ATL still receives approximately 3,000 scripts a year, most of its productions since 1988 have either been commissioned by ATL or produced first at another regional theater.
Of the six full-length plays produced at this year’s festival, only Joan Ackermann’s The Batting Cage hits a home run. Commissioned by ATL, The Batting Cage is a wonderfully funny play about two women, Julianna and Wilson, who must come to terms with their sister’s death. Over the course of a 10-day stay in a Florida Holiday Inn, compulsive Julianna drowns out her grief and confusion by filling their garish room with ceaseless chatter. Meanwhile, Wilson, the dead sister’s twin, is so immobilized by her grief that she can barely speak; used to functioning as “the quiet one” of the pair, she must now find her own voice.
While Julianna confronts her loneliness by hitting every tourist trap in St. Augustine, Wilson confronts her own feelings of loss by hitting an endless stream of mechanical pitches at a batting cage near the motel. When she finally breaks through the sound barrier of Julianna’s babbling, both women face their grief head-on. Under Lisa Peterman’s flawless direction, Veanne Cox’s Julianna exploits every good line in one of the best performances of the festival. She’s ably complemented by Babo Harrison as Wilson.
Ever since Jane Martin’s first play, Talking With, premiered at the 1981 Humana Festival, the playwright’s works have repeatedly electrified even jaded festival audiences. All but one of her works have premiered at ATL, and each adds to Martin’s striking range: At one extreme is Cementville, a bizarre comedy about female wrestlers; at the other, Keely and Du, a Pulitzer-nominated drama that humanizes both sides of the abortion debate.
Martin’s newest play, Jack and Jill, is her third Humana premiere since 1990. Here, her gifts as a writer save this drama about two self-absorbed people trying to save their relationship from becoming nothing more than a protracted vivisection. With Jon Jory’s sure direction, Pamela Stewart as Jill and John Leonard Thompson as Jack turn in terrific performances. But, in the end, Jack and Jill is such a long and painful lover’s quarrel, you wonder why they keep trying.
Four other plays were standouts. John Patrick Shanley, whose credits include the screenplay for Moonstruck, exploits the comic possibilities of both beginning and ending a relationship with two entertaining one-acts: Missing Marisa is a wry conversation between two men who have been dumped by the same woman, while Kissing Christine is a delicious eavesdrop on a revealing first date. Novice playwright Elizabeth Dewberry’s Flesh and Blood, a comedy-drama about a mother and two daughters who fail to connect, is a promising start, and Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang’s Trying to Find Chinatown is a rare gem of a short play.
The remaining productions were disappointing. Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, a drama about people quarantined in London during the plague, failed to establish any dramatic tension, nor did it succeed in connecting with the audience. The same could be said for Guillermo Reyes’ Chilean Holiday, a play about two families in the early days of Pinochet’s Chile. The formidable talents of controversial director Anne Bogart were wasted on Going, Going, Gone, an expressionist piece conceived by Bogart and created by her Saratoga International Theater Institute company. The work suffers from the fact that no playwright was actually involved in its creation; rather than a play, it’s an animated lecture in quantum physics.
With several good 1996 festival productionsand an almost certain hit in The Batting CageATL has once again proven that the risks inherent in commissioning and staging new plays can have a terrific playoff.
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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