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A CurtainUp Feature
The 29th Humana Festival: 2005

By Charles Whaley

The Full Length Plays Are Led by Pure Confidence
Iíve got the horse right here and its name isnít Paul Revere but Pure Confidence, the title also of the gem of this yearís Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Carlyle Brownís incandescent drama is set first in the pre-Civil War South when black jockeys, though slaves, dominated the sport of horseracing.

Simon Cates, cocky and smart (an electrifying performance by Gavin Lawrence) consistently wins races riding Pure Confidence, the thoroughbred owned by Colonel Wiley Johnson (indelibly brought to life by ATL veteran William McNulty), a folksy cagey plantation owner whom Simon effectively manipulates to earn money to buy freedom for himself and his wife Caroline (an arrestingly subtle performance by Kelly Taffe). Caroline had been the slave owned by Miss Mattie (peerlessly played by Jane Welch), the Colonelís strong-willed and sharp-tongued wife, an iron magnolia of the first order.

The second act, 15 years later, when Simon is a bellhop at a posh Saratoga hotel and Caroline is a domestic, reunites the two couples whose lives have been so intertwined. Mattie and the Colonel want Simon and Caroline to come back home with them. The playwright lets us wonder if they will.

Working with a superlative cast and a first-rate production on scenic designer Paul Owenís magnificent set (a racetrack building with stalls, a plantation veranda, a winnerís circle, a hotel reception area) director Clinton Turner Davis and playwright Brown made Pure Confidence the acknowledged favorite of the festivalís six full-length plays.

The Rest of the Full-Length Play Lineup
Here's a brief sumup of the overall strong lineup:

--Moot the Messenger, Kia Corthronís scathing indictment of a media culture complicit with agitprop of the Bush Administration and its corporate supporters. Citing facts and figures with machine-gun rapidity, Corthronís fiercely idealistic TV reporter Briar (rivetingly played by Tamilla Woodard) and her fellow black colleague Vaughn (the excellent Brenda Thomas) made their dismaying points with intense precision. As Tax, Briarís brother who has returned as a paraplegic after serving in Iraq and is suffering from psychological as well as physical wounds, Erik LaRay Harvey was outstanding.

--A Nervous Smile, John Bellusoís chilling drama, drawn from a real-life incident about parents abandoning their children afflicted with severe cerebral palsy. It was superbly played, under David Esbjornsonís direction, by Sean Haberle as Brian, the domineering and philandering husband of wealthy alcohol-and-drug addicted Eileen (Maureen Mueller) and by Nic (Mhari Sandoval), the compliant lawyer with whom Brian is having an affair.

--The Shaker Chair, Adam Bockís comedy/drama directed by ATL artistic director Marc Masterson, took place on Paul Owenís beautifully simplistic set with bare wooden floors, white unadorned walls, an armchair, and a Shaker chair, reflecting the clear lines of the life of 60-something widow Marion (Kathleen Butler). Her comfortable routine is shattered, however, when her firebrand activist friend Jean (Geraldine Librandi) involves her in a night-time incursion at a pig farm factory spilling sewage into groundwater. There are tragic consequences that inspire changes in her, including withdrawal from involvement in the marital strife of her clinging sister Dolly (Sarah Peterson) and her unfaithful control-freak husband Frank (Larry John Meyers). Connecting the lifestyle of the world-shunning Shakers with Marionís introduction to activism, however, is rather far-fetched.

--Memory House by Kathleen Tolan is set in real time on New Yearís Eve in a Manhattan apartment, a divorced 50ish mother and her teenage daughter dredge up issues that are blocking the daughterís efforts to complete a college-entrance essay about her life. Impeccably acted by Taylor Miller as the mother and Cassandra Bissell as the daughter adopted from a Russian orphanage, the play brings to mind the much darker ínight, Mother of Marsha Norman. But Tolanís ending is upbeat. While the talk goes on (a bit too long) the mother makes and bakes from scratch a blueberry pie (a bit distracting).

--Hazard County by Allison Moore drew on two strands--a real-life Kentucky murder and the ever-so-popular redneck TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. It just didnít work though fans of the TV show might disagree. In 1995 a young black man shot and killed a young white man flying a Confederate flag on his pick-up truck. Mooreís laboriously contrived plot has a Fox News reality TV producer (Sean Dougherty) taking up with a woman (Chelsey Rives) widowed in a similar incident in a small town in southwestern Kentucky. Best of show was Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as the womanís rowdy down home cousin Camille.

The Festival's Dominating Themes
Throughout festival offerings the disdain and disconnect felt with the Bush Administration and the way the country is heading were prominent. All that revulsion was crystallized in Uncle Samís Satiric Spectacular, a dazzling Brechtian vaudeville by six playwrights -- Greg Allen, Sheila Callaghan, Bridget Carpenter, Eric Coble, Richard Dresser, and Hilly Hicks--and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman. Fast-paced and joke-filled, the 32 sketches were devastatingly effective as the 22 members of ATLís Apprentice Company highlighted through a prism of absurdity the excesses and overreaching of the Bush Administration.

Subtitled "On Democracy and Other Fictions Featuring Patriotism Acts and Blue Songs From a Red State," the show hit its target with such scenes as a young woman scheduling a doctorís appointment for an abortion even though sheís not pregnant. "The way things are going in America," she says, "why, I might not be able to get an abortion later. I just want to get one while I still can."

The 10-Minute Plays
This yearís four 10-minute plays were a disappointment, slight and unmemorable. Dream of Jeannie-by-the-Door by David Valdes Greenwood had a few funny moments and a dollop of suspense as Wilma, described as older-than-God (Jane Welch), commandeers a stool to play the slot machines next to a guy in a cowboy hat and tuxedo (Jesse Hooker) and a woman in a wedding dress (Mary Bacon) at a casino far from Vegas.

What's Next?
Predicting how festival plays lauded here will fare at other venues is a risky business (witness how recent favorites like After Ashley and Omnium Gatherum did not survive long in New York productions). Other directors, other actors, other audiences can produce different results. Still, one 2005 Humana play, Memory House, has already been announced for Playwrights Horizons in New York with Dianne Wiest as the mother. Others will doubtless move, too.
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