By PAM HARBAUGH
LOUISVILLE, KY — Friday at the Humana Festival started with breakfast hugs from Les Waters, the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which runs the Humana.The theater offered breakfast at Milkwood restaurant which is in ATL’s basement and run by celebrity chef Edward Lee (“Top Chef: Texas, Season 9”). Mr. Waters came by and gave affectionate greetings to many media personnel gathered.
From there, we headed to a fascinating panel discussion called “The Path to Production” moderated by Jeremy B. Cohen, producing artistic director at the Playwrights Center and who has directed at numerous theaters including the Goodman, Woolly Mammoth and the Denver Center.On the panel were Giovanna Sardelli who workshopped Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” plus other works by him. Her other credits are extensive and include the Roundabout, CTG and Lark Play Development Center. Currently she is director of New Works at TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley. The other panelist was Kimberly Senior, whose many credits include Steppenwolf, the Goodman and Lincoln Center.
Some of their many insights included how closely the playwright, director and scenic designer need to work to birth a new play. And, how the creative forces need to trust each other to serve the work.
You can watch a Howl Round video of this panel by clicking here.
Then…the plays. We saw two today:
#1: “The Roommate,” a funny, endearing and quirky play by Jen Silverman, also someone with enviable list of credits and education. Directed with crystal clarity by Mike Donahue, this production stars Margaret Daly as Sharon, a naive, big-hearted woman living a small life in Iowa, and Tasha Lawrence as Robyn, Sharon’s mysterious new roommate with a questionable past.
Ms. Silverman’s play explores with tenderness and humor Sharon’s discovery of the wild woman lurking beneath the surface of meek convention. This is her poem, she says, and sometimes the first poem is a little bad.
Ms. Daly carves out laugh after laugh with her character’s simple understatement or a quick dubious glance. Ms. Lawrence disappears into her role, delivering such a finely crafted, spontaneous portrayal that you never “see” her act.
Add to this a smart and simple scenic design by Andrew Boyce — that sly use of a bowl of oranges and a bright turquoise floor advances the theme of opposites coming together. Paul Toben’s lighting design is just right, allowing quick changes between scenes and keeping the running time to 1 hour 40 minutes.
Yes, Sharon does toss aside her mantle of respectability a bit too easily, but the production is just so doggoned fun and satisfying that you are willing to forgive. However, Ms. Silverman may not be as lucky in other productions.
#2: “Dot” written by Colman Domingo and directed by Meredith McDonough has some very funny lines and vivid characters, but the overlong play could stand some editing and better construction in order to sharpen the focus.Set in a family home in the inner city of West Philadelphia, the play concerns a matriarch suffering from dementia and her frustrated children trying to help. The first act is played with fourth wall. Part way through the second act a new character delivers a soliloquy. Characters are really caricatures making this feel very much like an episode of a TV sitcom. Amid the humor and silly characters, the “Very Special Moments” become leaden and suck up all the emotion leaving none for the audience to be moved. Then there is the scene when the son dons special gear to see what it must feel like to have dementia and arthritis and…and…I just wanted it to end.
What is especially maddening here is that the talents have impeccable credits. Mr. Domingo has had productions at The Public Theater, TheatreWorks, Vineyard Theatre and has had residencies at The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and “Dot” received support at a Dartmouth College summer residency for New York Theatre Workshop. Ms. McDonough is associate director at ATL and has worked with TheatreWorks, Marin Theatre Company and Magic Theatre (three HUGE names in San Francisco Bay Area theater).
Maybe I’m being too harsh, but this really, really pains me. For people with such enviable education and experience, you simply expect more. And, for the Humana Festival, you expect more as well.