A catch-up on the Humana Festival of New American Plays

In Leah Winkler Nanako’s “God Said This,” a young woman returns from New York to Kentucky because her mother has been diagnosed with cancer.

In Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s “Do You Feel Anger,” a young woman effectively abandons her mother.

In Deborah Stein’s “Marginal Loss,” the emotional sterility of a workplace in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks is so profound that even harboring a passing thought about “family” is viewed as a moral transgression.

In Susan Soon He Stanton’s “we, the invisibles,” immigrant mothers talk about the pain and guilt of being forced to leave their children behind. And in a wrenching moment the narrator of the play — representing the work’s author — discloses the terrible grief she herself feels about the sacrifices her own mother made for her.

In the collaborative, multi-authored piece “You Across From Me,” a recurring thematic segment shreds the gender (and racial) dynamics of the phony archetype of ideal 1950s family that too many Americans romanticize as exemplary of a time when the country was still “great.”

In Mark Schultz’s brilliant and provocative “Evocation to Visible Appearance,” a mother’s absence is one of the factors that haunts the central character’s dark journey.

Last fall, LEO reported on the profound impact the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of New American Plays has long played in fostering gender, racial and ethnic diversity in American theater (search: LEO Weekly and Humana Festival). This year’s Festival carries on that tradition: Six of the Festivals nine playwrights are women. And though that seems startling, what’s really startling is that in the context of the Festival’s history, it’s not all that strange.

What is noteworthy about this year’s Festival is the extraordinary collective impact of these six productions.

For years, a pitifully-small number of plays and films could pass “The Bechdel Test,” which asks three simple questions: Does a work have at least two women in it? Do you they talk to each other? And when they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?

As a white male, I know that nearly all stories in every medium can easily pass a “male” Bechdel Test. I grew up surrounded by narratives about fathers and sons and brothers and comrades and teammates and buddies and rivals. Some depictions were positive. Some were outrageous and offensive. Some were sentimental and romanticized and others were cruel. But the variety was endless and the choices were many.

This Festival easily passes the Bechdel Test — and indeed, at times this year it has seemed that the plays themselves are talking amongst themselves about mothers and daughters and sisters and friends and rivals and buddies in ways hardly ever seen in any of our media.

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I can’t presume to speak for what women have seen of themselves in decades past in fiction, film and TV. But I didn’t live in a completely parallel universe. And I know what I did not see.

And what I did not see before, I certainly saw in this extraordinary assortment of plays.

Beyond the performances and superb technical execution in the individual productions, this Festival has accomplished what theater does better than any other medium: It has offered a constant stream of epiphanies about authentic lived experiences that don’t merely tell us stories. If we’re receptive, they open us up to see the world through the minds of the writers and directors.

After seeing“Do You Feel Anger,” a friend commented that the frequent repetition of a joke about unreciprocated blow jobs grew tedious. At first I agreed — but then I remembered youthful stints in workplaces where the tedious drumbeat of repetitive sexist tropes never ceased. Another friend told me she wept during that show — because it felt so real to her. In that play, the main character, an empathy coach finds herself working with employees of a collections firm. As her optimism and confidence erode, she ignores messages from her mother while making a series of small compromises that eventually lead her to a point from which she cannot return.

In contrast, “God Said This” is a witty, emotionally powerful play about a daughter whose trajectory goes the other way. She has stayed away from home for a decade, has contempt for her alcoholic father and a studied indifference to her born-again sister. But upon returning home, she finds herself making conciliatory compromises that are collectively inspiring and ultimately cathartic.

The riveting docu-drama “we, the invisibles,” which didn’t receive a full LEO review because it opened during the week of the paper’s Fake Issue, is an intricate ensemble work brilliantly directed by Dámaso Rodríguez. On one level, it’s a powerful account of a notorious case of sexual abuse. The playwright (played by Rinabeth Apostol) cannot magically expel the perpetrator from her story. But she does give us entrée into the obstinate resistance of some of the most vulnerable and victimized people in America. And each of those stories forms is palpably moving. But in the end, the emotional core of the story is uncovered when the playwright reveals her own story — and that of her mother.

The Professional Training Company production, “You Across From Me” (also unreviewed) deals with gender in an episode called “The National Foosball Championship” credited to The Ensemble and playwright Jaclyn Backhaus. It’s a spot-on critique of the sexism endemic in American sports — and sports journalism. And Backlyn’s “the origin of cheese” bashes all kinds of “privilege” with assistance from Jessica Pabst’s stunning Guiseppe Arciboldo- inspired costume designs and Arnulfo Maldonado’s sets.

Some audience members and my fellow Louisville critics don’t seem to agree with my assessment of Mark Schultz’s “Evocation to Visible Appearance,” directed by Les Waters. In fact, it’s not clear that my fellow critics made much effort to engage with the play’s considerable complexities.

But after the first viewing (and now multiple viewings), I regard it as an innovative masterpiece. My thinking is still evolving and I have posted updates to the “Louisville Theatre” Facebook page (and will post there again).

To be clear, the script plays out something like a medieval mystery play — or perhaps a medieval tapestry — but this story, with all its layers of theology and magic sets a bleak existential crisis in a dystopian landscape. The script has a rigorous, contrapuntal structure. Projected surtitles always foreshadow and connect to dialogue that appears the second scene following. Certain actions and states — holding hands, being unable to taste, concerns about clothing and appearance, the idea of hollowness, the shifting meaning of “stupidity,” and more, create layers of meaning.

My initial take was that the play was unrelentingly apocalyptic, but on a second viewing, I found hope and light in unexpected places. After all, in a world going awry, what looks like insanity may be something quite different. And regardless of whether you reject the darkness that hovers over the landscape, the performances here by Bruce McKenzie, Luke F. LaMontaigne, Suzy Weller, Lincoln Clauss, Ronete Levenson and Daniel Arthur Johnson are amazing.

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