Every year the folks behind the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville deny that they had any theme in mind when choosing their line-up. And every year, the theater critics and commentators who see the Festival are just sure they see a common idea emerging.
I'm not usually among them, but this year, as I watched one play after the other, including the anthology of plays put together by several playwrights under the umbrella title of "The End," I kept thinking about the idea of aloneness, or maybe belonging, the other side of that coin. For most of the plays -- "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," by A. Rey Pamatmat, "Maple and Vine," by Jordan Harrison, "Bob," by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, "The Edge of Our Bodies," by Adam Rapp, and also "Promageddon," by Dan Dietz and "La Muerte" by Marco Ramirez, two shorter pieces included in "The End" -- that theme is front and center. So "Edith" features a pair of mostly abandoned children trying to stay together and still be a family, "Maple and Vine" is about a couple who feel out of sync with the modern world so they join a 1950s reenactment community, "Bob" has a goofy guy dumped at a White Castle in Louisville as a newborn now on a picaresque trip across America to figure out who he is and where he belongs, "The Edge of Our Bodies" is a one-girl show about a disaffected young woman who doesn't feel connected to anyone, not even herself, "La Muerte" has two boys working together to fight for survival as they tunnel under New York City, and "Promageddon" is exactly what it sounds like, as four kids (an emo guy, a popular girl, a football player and his nerdy sister) find themselves united to survive an apocalypse that just happened to start during their prom.
Molly Smith Metzler's funny and outrageous "Elemeno Pea," about sisters who want conflicting things from life, gets to the "belonging" idea in a different way, but it's still there. In "Elemeno Pea," older sister Devon comes to visit her younger sister Simone at the estate on Martha's Vineyard where Simone works as an assistant to a very wealthy woman. Devon thinks her sister is languishing in a soul-destroying Crazytown, while Simone pretty much loves every bit of the gilded life at "Island Haven." Once again, it's about who belongs where and why, and what you have to give up to fit in.
The last play in the Festival, Anne Washburn's "A Devil at Noon," was also its weakest in my estimation, but it still involves isolation and aloneness, as the main character, a slightly unhinged science fiction writer, struggles with reality and fiction overlapping and colliding. Has everything we see on stage sprung from the recesses of Chet Ellis's fertile mind? Is any of it real? It seemed to me most like deadline-induced insanity, when too much coffee, too little sleep and all the ideas banging around in your head start to implode. Or explode. Or whatever. I don't think "Devil at Noon" jelled, really, but it still poked at aloneness, looking at the psyche of a man who's spent so much time living inside his own head that he has created a fictional love interest (and maybe a cadre of Ninjas) to help him feel alive.
I will talk more about "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," "Elemeno Pea" and "Maple and Vine," the plays I found most successful, in individual pieces, but for me, this was a strong Humana Festival overall, prompting a lot of discussion and reflection, as well as a few standing ovations. In a time when it seems we are increasingly isolated in our homes, stuck to our computers or in front of our televisions instead of going outside and interacting with other people, Humana's examination of community and family and how we find a place to belong felt timely and very much on target.