Children's Needs Take Center Stage at Humana Theater Festival

Article excerpt

Sometimes the arts really do hold a mirror up to nature - or culture anyway. And the reflection can be scary. But those troubling images may tell us a lot about the difficult issues of our times, and help us think more deeply about who we are and what we need to face.

The 22nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which concludes tomorrow, acts as such a mirror. Without looking for a theme of any kind, festival directors at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky nevertheless found themselves with a hot one: the neglect of children and their needs.

All but one of the six full-length plays were explicitly or tacitly concerned with the welfare of children or teens. The sixth, Ti Jean Blues, a beautifully realized experimental adaptation of Jack Kerouac's writings, by JoAnne Akalaitis, is a celebration of the youthful vigor of Kerouac's work and of the youth-oriented beat movement. The intelligence and sophistication of the plays, the range of styles and insights, as well as the eerie and surprising relevance of the subject matter, made this a great year at the festival. In Donald Margulies's seriocomic Dinner With Friends, Beth erupts in tears one night with best friends Gabe and Karen, telling them that she and Tom are getting a divorce. Gabe and Karen are stunned. Their children, heard offstage, are the same age and very close. And both Gabe and Karen ask repeatedly, "What about the children?" The horrifying selfishness of Tom's answer, as if his own happiness were all that matters, implies that the kids will simply have to learn to cope. The play is about the dissolution of a friendship as much as anything, but there is a kind of undercurrent running through the story about parental responsibilities and the qualities that help relationships survive. Funny, snappy dialogue reveals the attitudes that sink and those that buoy up couples sailing through troubled waters. There is, of course, more than one way to build social contracts. In Stuart Spencer's offbeat comedy Resident Alien, 12-year-old Billy is kidnapped by aliens as his father, Michael, tries to save him. Billy's presence is felt, though we only catch sight of him at the end when the green alien who has gone trades places with Michael. Michael, in fact, is the real alien: A working-class guy who reads Ibsen and Kierkegaard belongs with the superior beings of outer space. By the end, Billy and Michael can communicate with each other by transmitters lodged in their molars. And Billy, who has been returned to Earth, understands that the green man will make a more acceptable parental unit than his own dad. In its own goofy way, the play skewers the pervasive inanity of television culture. "Resident Alien" addresses the atmosphere children grow up in with a wily bemusement. But two other plays in the festival strike at environmental factors that endanger children. These plays, without intending to, set up a dialectic as they approach the problem of teen violence. Naomi Wallace's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is set during the Great Depression. Pace, a tomboy with a particularly free spirit, hangs out with school chum Dalton, watching the trains pass by high above them on the trestle. They dare each other to race the train across the trestle, a sport that has already cost another teen his life. Both kids have parents who love them, though each suffers the extremes of poverty. …