When Actors Theatre of Louisville released the lineup for its 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays, artistic director Les Waters praised its playwrights for representing “the future of theatre,” with six world premieres and three 10 minute plays among them.
“I think that our writers define the world we live in now,” Waters said in a statement.
From the political to the supernatural to the speculative and everything in between, the festival’s 40th season covers the range of human experiences with diverse, compelling new works.
Topics range from the civil war in Uganda in Hanson Jung’s Cardboard Piano to Kentucky ghost lore in Wondrous Strange, by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman to a “comedy of missed connections” exploring how serendipity or coincidence influences our lives in This Random World by Steven Dietz to sci-fi political drama in Wellesley Girl, by Brendan Pelsue, set 400 years in the future.
Last weekend, I took in two of the festival’s most buzz-inducing shows, Residence by Laura Jacqmin, and For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, by Sarah Ruhl.
Directed by Hal Brooks, Residence is about a new mother, Maggie (Danielle Slavick), trying to get her family back on its feet after she spent several weeks in a psychiatric facility for...let’s just call it an extreme bout of postpartum depression. She checks into a “moderately upscale” extended-stay hotel called Residence for a month in order to revive her career selling mobile ultrasound machines.
During her stay, she befriends hotel workers Bobby (Alejandro Rodriguez) and Theresa (Leah Karpel), whose lives are also on shaky ground, financially and personally. Over time, the boundaries between guest and employee blur and the trio impacts the trajectory of one another’s lives in surprising ways.
Presented with sleek realism, Residence’s strength is its portrayal of how the post-recession economic fallout cripples healthy relationships and even careers and personal dreams, keeping everyone figuratively trapped in a seemingly permanent transitional mode. From Maggie’s mounting medical bills, to Theresa’s looming tuition bill, to Bobby’s denial of his own daughter’s paternity, all are faced with responsibilities they either can’t meet or barely meet at the expense of personal integrity.
Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman’s descending set — the ceiling of Maggie’s hotel room lowers to become a poolside deck area — drew some oohs and ahhs from the audience, including me. The upscale, impersonal sterility of the hotel decor is so pervasive it is almost its own character, and despite its beauty, makes the actors have to work extra hard to convey their humanity, a feat they rarely achieve.
Despite strong performances mined for comedy, the deck is stacked against the cast due to Jacqmin’s largely irredeemable characters. Excepting their collective sense of wit and delivery, these characters are so very difficult to like. When Maggie reveals a dark secret at the play’s climax, the empathy I imagine I was supposed to feel wasn’t there. The play attempts to humanize hard choices, even criminal acts, that the show’s characters make, but it failed to convince me.
If Residence shows us a contemporary world where relationships and life purpose struggles to cohere, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday shows us the opposite, a world where topsy turvy familial relationships can and do endure, even perhaps beyond death.
Commissioned by ATL, Ruhl’s play stars Kathleen Chalfant, a veteran of Broadway, film and television shows like House of Cards. Chalfant is lithely inspiring in her role as Ann, one of five siblings in their 50s and 60s who gather around their dying father’s bedside as the play opens to the beeping soundtrack of medical equipment and the on and off twitching of a lone florescent light. Juxtaposing moments of ordinary chatter (sports, politics, jokes) with the momentous emotionality of their father’s impending death, the play’s hospital scene plays out in stirring realism, with director Les Waters allowing silence to linger overlong. I greatly admired the cast’s casual execution of significant pregnant pauses, silences that hung thickly in the air.
That atmospheric silence is ruptured in a dramatic scene change that features a loud, brassy, fourth-wall-dashing interlude from a marching band that walks throughout the theater. This daring interruption suggested an immediate joyous reception of the departed upon death, or perhaps the notion that a celebration of life is also an appropriate response to death. It just felt right.
Realism further begins to fade by the play’s second location — the house the siblings grew up in. Emotionally lubricated by a couple bottles of Jameson, the bantering brothers and sisters descend into heavy reminiscence peppered with the occasional squabble of politics and religion.
In addition to Chalfant’s poignant performance as the eldest child who never felt like she grew up all the way, supporting cast members Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Lisa Emery and Ron Crawford offer pleasantly relatable portrayals of Ann’s younger brothers and sisters. Special kudos to Barney O’Hanlon for stepping into the role of John with only two and a half hours of rehearsal time under his belt due to actor Scott Jaeck’s sudden absence to deal with a personal family matter.
The third and final act (the play has no intermission) is where the greatest magic lies. When Ann finds her old Peter Pan costume in a trunk, all realism goes out the door, and in a feat of soaring imagination, the siblings metaphorically return to Neverland in exquisitely wrought scenes of play, ponderance, and yes, flying! Waters taps designer Annie Smart to bring Wendy’s last night in the nursery to life, complete with hulking windows and starry night sky, as the siblings pretend with one another as if they are children once again in a sublime triumph over aging and death. It is without a doubt the most beautifully executed scene I have ever experienced at the theater. It’s so beautiful in fact, that I am plotting to return to see it again.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.