CRAMMED into a tight weekend recently, the 16th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville sliced through a healthy cross section of prevailing American sensibilities.
Wading through the varied work of 11 playwrights, one could feel currents in the culture at large and the preoccupation with mortality in particular.
The Humana Festival is a satisfying event because the acting is universally good (sometimes very good) and the productions sound (sometimes super). Because a variety of styles and ideas bump elbows in such close quarters, you leave feeling a little closer to the pulse of theatrical happenings. Which is not to say that those happenings are necessarily satisfying in themselves. Still, the festival offers a sparkling, friendly atmosphere in which to consider new (and used) theatrical ideas. Trilogy of short plays
Among the most successful plays were Jane Anderson's "Lynette at 3 A.M.," and Lanford Wilson's "Eukiah," two of three short plays. Condensed into 20-odd minutes, Ms. Anderson's wakeful Lynette contemplates love and death in the wee hours of the morning as her lover pragmatically tries to sleep through her musings in anticipation of the workaday world. In an upright bed (as if we were looking down on it from above), the winsome Lynette (Anne O'Sullivan) struggles with mortality as Bobby (V. Craig Heidenreich) struggles for oblivion. Lively and compassionate, the comedy tickles us and poignantly captures the loneliness of a woman afraid of death. We certainly understand her plight. But though Lynette asks all the right questions, Anderson leaves her with only sexual fantasies and the longing for true intimacy to ease her long dark night.
"Eukiah" is as dark a murder story as you're likely to find. A retarded youth has overheard a plot to kill the race horses he tends. Another employee, Butch (played with frigid assurance by Mark Shannon), tries to lure Eukiah out of his hiding place in an airplane hanger to reassure him no such plan exists. Has the boy merely misunderstood a harmless conversation or has he misplaced his affection and his trust? The frightening thing about this piece is the indifferent brutality it unmasks. In Butch's long speech to Eukiah in the shadows, he manipulates the boy's best instincts. Here is a fully developed portrait of evil in Butch's cool betrayal of Eukiah - evil that is both complex and devoid of passion. In a very few minutes, 'Lynette at 3 A.M.' and 'Eukiah' created a whole universe of character and trouble. 'Procedure'
Joyce Carol Oates's "Pro- cedure" completed the trilogy of shorts. One nurse uses hospital procedure to distance herself from death. The trouble is, can she feel anything at all about life? So icy and so flat is this piece, you could skate on it. 'Hyaena'
Ross MacLean's depressing "Hyaena" places a strangely solicitous man in the hospital room of a querulous dying man. As the old man's wife and friends desert him, the stranger alternately tries to console and undermine his dim hope. The stranger wants something from the old man - he keeps watch over the patient out of some bizarre need of his own. He may take whatever baubles he can scavenge from the dying, but the "Hyaena" (as the old man calls him) wants something besides the ring on the patient's hand, the uneaten salad on his dinner tray, or the old coat in the closet. The Hyaena wants some assurance of immortality. It's a long way to go for very little insight. 'Marisol'
The most ambitious and arguably the most interesting play of the festival was Jose Rivera's failed surreal extravaganza, "Marisol." The first act promises so much, what with an angel revealing to a fragile Puerto Rican secretary that there will be war in heaven and apocalypse on earth. …