Last weekend, I saw approximately half of the shows at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. I’m heading back this weekend for the rest, but I wanted to write about the themes and connections between those first three shows. I saw this combination by chance, but all three have strong thematic ties. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is coincidence and how much is careful planning.

First, a quick description of the plays from the Actors Theatre site.

Bob by Peter Sinn Nachtreib Bob was born and abandoned in a White Castle bathroom in Louisville, Kentucky. The ensuing rags-to-riches-to-fame-to-fall-to-legacy-to-the-love-of-living-life tale follows Bob on an epic journey in just five acts. Nachtrieb returns to Actors Theatre with a hilarious and poignant story of one man’s dream. A dream of greatness. The greatness of Bob.

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat Sixteen-year-old Kenny and his little sister Edith are all but abandoned on a remote farm in Middle America. But when Kenny’s friend Benji starts encroaching on their makeshift family—and Edith shoots something she really shouldn’t shoot—the outside world comes barging in. Edith takes aim at growing up, staying young, falling in love and facing the consequences . . . then fires away.

Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler When Devon visits Simone for an end-of-summer sibs fest on Martha’s Vineyard, she finds her little sister changed beyond recognition. As personal assistant to wealthy and demanding trophy wife Michaela Kell, Simone enjoys a lavish beachfront lifestyle that these girls never could have imagined growing up in blue-collar Buffalo—but is all this luxury really free of cost? Worlds collide and sisters square off in this keenly-observed comedy about ambition, regret and the choices that shape who we become.

On the surface, each of these plays is about family.

Bob is a man apparently destined for greatness. We follow him on a picaresque journey from birth to old age, back and forth across the country, as he finds and loses everything and everyone important to him. Nachtreib shakes us awake from what’s become an American Nightmare and, reconfiguring the idea of what makes a person great, finds a new dream to strive for in the end. With one actor as Bob and a chorus of four as everyone else in Bob’s life, presented in a “poor theatre” style, this is the most dreamlike and fantastic of the three.

Edith focuses on three teenagers over the course of several weeks–well, okay, Edith’s 12, but old beyond her years. Edith and Kenny are siblings living essentially on their own. Benji is a classmate of Kenny’s. Spoiler alert: the two fall in love, and as a result, Benji is eventually kicked out by his mother. He comes to stay with Edith and Kenny, creating a new family unit for the moment. The relationships between the characters and their parents create most of the conflict in the play. Pamatmat looks at how families interact for better or worse, and how sometimes, the standard nuclear model isn’t the ideal.

Elemeno Pea has a tighter timeframe than the other two plays–it runs in real time in a single act–and has multiple families and relationships woven in and out of one another. Set on Martha’s Vineyard, Metzler illustrates how the class struggle can splinter and reshape relationships even between blood relatives. Sympathies tilt and shift throughout this script, the most classically constructed of the three, no pun intended.

All three plays challenge our idea of what makes a family. Interestingly enough, in the end, all three subvert the typical “happy ending” cliche we’ve come to expect.

But these three plays are also tied together with themes of perception versus reality, of striving for something better beyond oneself.

Stick with me here.

Also, bear in mind, I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but there will be spoilers from here on. To quote the Incomparable! podcast–which is always worth a listen–I’m going to “blow the spoiler horn.”

Nachtreib puts it right out there, his story is an examination of the so-called American Dream. What constitutes a great man (or woman) today? Is it through what they know, what they achieve? Or is it simply having enough money to build a monument and put their name on a plaque? Can Bob–who is largely a Candide-ian innocent observing the world–understand what those monuments truly mean? By the time he truly puts himself to work achieving greatness, he’s been through several different lifetimes’ worth of tragedy and joy, but all he’s learned is how long it takes to make a monument. It’s not the carving that makes one great, it’s the life lived that made others think the carving worth making at all. This point is driven home beautifully in the last moments of the play, an idea echoed by (and echoing) the set design. Suddenly, what we perceive as the overproduction of a “poor theatre” piece on the mainstage of Actors Theatre becomes wholly intentional and transcendent as the lights fade.

It’s also a damn funny play.

Similarly, in Edith Can Shoot, Edith, Kenny and Benji are all leading what look like the lives of typical teenagers in the early 90’s. That’s the surface. Kenny works to keep up appearances, pretending to the outside world that his and Edith’s father is more involved in their daily lives, pretending to Edith that their late mother was a larger part of their lives before she died. Edith imagines herself a space alien being tested in preparation for the final invasion. Kenny and Benji discover a mutual attraction and fall in love, but keep their relationship hidden from everyone, even Edith. Nothing and no one is quite what they seem.

As the various storylines converge, secrets are revealed, families splinter and shift, and all seems lost. Kenny and Benji are kept apart, Edith is sent away and forced to act like a girl. But reality reasserts itself in the end, and the healthier makeshift familial bonds will out over the traditional model. Moving past a perceived but false reality, the characters are able to survive.

It’s also a damn funny play.

Of course, Elemeno Pea takes these themes to the extreme and beautifully so. It’s not merely that Metzler focuses on the class struggle, it’s that it’s set in the home of an obscenely wealthy advertising executive. His wife’s personal assistant has the run of the house and is spending it with her blue-collar older sister. Right from the start, we have an undercurrent of perception versus reality, brought home quite literally as the woman of the house reappears to dominate her assistant’s time. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, all the masks–and gloves–come off. We discover to what extent the ad exec wants to reshape reality, and we learn how others pay the price for succumbing to the fantasy. The scales fall from our eyes, if not all of the characters’.

It’s also, yes, a damn funny play.

So. Perception versus reality. Families, communities, support systems and how they form. Work and action versus empty monuments and trophies.

As someone who’s lived nearby and gone to many Humana Festivals in the past, I can already say this is the strongest lineup of scripts in years. I can’t wait to see the rest of them and how–or if–they fit with these three.

Stay tuned…

  • April 1, 2011