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Theatre Reviews: Two Premieres at Humana Festival in Louisville

LOUISVILLE - Dead and dying parents are the engines powering two plays by the best-known playwrights featured in this year’s Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) through April 10.

The schedule of this 40th Humana kicks into high gear March 25-April 10 with five full-length plays playing in rep. There’s also an anthology of ghosts and hauntings by a quartet of young writers performed by ATL’s Acting Apprentice Company. Tickets are still available.

The double bill I chose for a quick road trip to Louisville last week was based on a pair of established playwrights whose works have had several productions in area professional theaters: Sarah Ruhl and Steven Dietz.

Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is inspired by her mother, an actress who played Peter Pan when the playwright was a child. Ruhl’s decision to combine a fond childhood memory with a fantasy about aging and dying feels forced and not yet ready for the stage.

Admired veteran actress Kathleen Chalfant leads a strong cast of Broadway veterans. She opens the play in front of the curtain, talking about childhood memories of Peter Pan.

Soon she moves to the opening scene where four middle-aged-plus people are already keeping watch as their aged father dies in a hospital room. But who is Chalfant’s Ann? Their mother? The dying man’s wife? She looks far older (at 71) than the rest of those gathered and it’s a while before it’s clear that she’s the eldest of five siblings. (Twee Alert: three of them are named for Peter Pan’s Darling kids.)

Dad dies at the end of the first scene and a high school band comes in to play several rounds of the chorus of "When the Saints Come Marching In", which is perhaps meant to suggest whimsy but to the more practical among us looks like an overly elaborate way to cover a lengthy scene change (How about a turntable?).

It’s odd how mundane the family blah-blah is in the hospital room and later at the family table, even with Dad’s ghost wandering around. They chat about when each first felt like a grown-up – but not captivatingly. By the final act, the action has moved to the Darling children’s bedroom and Chalfant takes to the air, proving she’s a trouper.

None of it makes Ruhl’s collection of ideas coherent. The one that is most clear: there is an after-life in people’s memories of you.

Steven Dietz regards This Random World we live in with a clever but too-neat entertainment of near-misses in a solid production directed by Meredith McDonough.

There are sister and brother Beth and Tim, and Tim’s crazy ex-girlfriend Claire, who thinks he’s dead (Tim wrote his own obituary that was mistakenly printed), and Claire’s most recent ex-boyfriend Gary - who manages to encounter Beth in Nepal.

Beth and Tim and their mom Scottie are remarkably unaware of what each other is doing. The offspring think mom is a shut-in; it turns out she travels all over the world. She usually takes along her companion Bernadette who conveniently requests Scottie take her sister Rhonda along to a Kyoto temple.

Since I said at the beginning of the review that death and dying parents are in each show, and since Dietz’s elegant and so-carefully planned and executed exercise in randomness is more and more illogical – PLOT DEVICE ALERT! - Scottie is the device and she unexpectedly dies to move things along.

It becomes one more merry-go-round of who knows and who doesn’t know, and of course Beth, who needs to know, is within a breath of finding out more than once, but, really, it’s all so random, isn’t it?

The thing is – Dietz doesn’t invite us to get involved, the characters are just on the stage to move forward his theories about things that could have happened and what ifs. And Dietz doesn’t tell us more than we already know.

Humana Festival of New American Plays, through April 10. Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville. Find play descriptions, performance dates and times, events during festival weekends, ticket and package prices and box office info here.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday (provided)