Humana Festival of New American Plays 2013 | The Delling Shore and Appropriate
The final weekend of the 37th Humana Festival here at Actors Theatre of Louisville coincides with Louisville's appearance in the Final Four—"the men's and the women's teams," a charming local theater supporter pressed upon me at a Thursday night cocktail party held to welcome the visiting industry professionals and press. She lamented (jokingly, I think) that I'd likely be seeing a play when the Cardinals face off against the Wichita State Shockers tonight.
Yet downtown Louisville seems nearly as proud of its theater this weekend as its college basketball teams. "Enjoy the Humana Festival," a security guard at my hotel said Friday upon noticing my red lanyard. And the energy created by the mixing of industry types and eager locals is enjoyable indeed, even if my first day's offerings were decidedly mixed.
My first play of the weekend was The Delling Shore by Sam Marks, whose The Old Masters was seen in Steppenwolf's First Look Repertory of New Work in 2010. Shore, while directed with style by Actors Theatre associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, offers an all-too-familiar seeming setup: upper middle class white people at a New England summer house, drinking and talking about their writing careers.
The twist on the formula here is that the two couples are fathers and daughters. Thomas (a properly pompous Jim Frangione), a successful author, and Frank (Bruce McKenzie), a decidedly less successful one, are grad school frenemies coming together for a weekend with their adult children. Frank's daughter Adrianne (Catherine Combs) is a precocious undergrad seeking an apprenticeship with Thomas, whose daughter Ellen (Meredith Forlenza) has a successful career in finance and seemingly no interest in the literary.
As the four ping off one another over the course of a long night, downing increasing amounts of wine and bourbon, old resentments between Thomas and Frank reveal newer resentments between parent and child. Once the quartet channels its energies into a much-foreshadowed parlor game, Shore starts to plausibly seem a riff on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the squabbling fathers as George and Martha, using their kids as the sacrificial Nick and Honey.
And like Carrie Coon's Honey in the recent Steppenwolf/Broadway revival of Woolf, Forlenza plays the apparently shallowest character with an impressive, affecting degree of nuance. Yet despite solid performances all around, Marks's work gets bogged down particularly in the repetitive, inert play of the game.
My second outing of the day will also invite comparison to a Steppenwolf and Broadway sensation. The good news for playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is that his thrilling family drama Appropriate deserves the inevitable invocations of August: Osage County.
Both pieces involve estranged and infuriating family members coming together for cleanup duty in the wake of a patriarch's death—August in rural Oklahoma, Appropriate in rural Arkansas. And both upended my on-paper sense of exhaustion with the "family secrets" genre.
The fantastic Jordan Baker, as crumbling, put-upon eldest sister Toni, even defends her increasingly hostile sallies by declaring, "I didn't do anything but tell the truth!" Baker's raw characterization comes across as a younger mix of Deanna Dunagan's truth-tellin’ Violet Weston and a fired-up Elaine Stritch.
But she's just one among a large ensemble of relatives uneasily reacquainting themselves with one another and each promoting his or her own version of family events, particularly regarding a discovery that speaks to the departed father's place in the South's deadly history of racism.
Jacobs-Jenkins's manic second act could use a bit of judicious pruning, but I feel it's safe to say Appropriate is an explosive and important new work. Chicago audiences can make their own call when this same production, helmed by Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Gary Griffin, opens Victory Gardens Theater's new season this fall.