Sometimes the arts really do hold a mirror up to nature - or culture anyway. And the reflection can be scary. But those troubling images may tell us a lot about the difficult issues of our times, and help us think more deeply about who we are and what we need to face.
The 22nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which concludes tomorrow, acts as such a mirror. Without looking for a theme of any kind, festival directors at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky nevertheless found themselves with a hot one: the neglect of children and their needs.
All but one of the six full-length plays were explicitly or tacitly concerned with the welfare of children or teens. The sixth, Ti Jean Blues, a beautifully realized experimental adaptation of Jack Kerouac's writings, by JoAnne Akalaitis, is a celebration of the youthful vigor of Kerouac's work and of the youth-oriented beat movement.
The intelligence and sophistication of the plays, the range of styles and insights, as well as the eerie and surprising relevance of the subject matter, made this a great year at the festival.
In Donald Margulies's seriocomic Dinner With Friends, Beth erupts in tears one night with best friends Gabe and Karen, telling them that she and Tom are getting a divorce. Gabe and Karen are stunned. Their children, heard offstage, are the same age and very close. And both Gabe and Karen ask repeatedly, "What about the children?" The horrifying selfishness of Tom's answer, as if his own happiness were all that matters, implies that the kids will simply have to learn to cope.
The play is about the dissolution of a friendship as much as anything, but there is a kind of undercurrent running through the story about parental responsibilities and the qualities that help relationships survive. Funny, snappy dialogue reveals the attitudes that sink and those that buoy up couples sailing through troubled waters. There is, of course, more than one way to build social contracts. In Stuart Spencer's offbeat comedy Resident Alien, 12-year-old Billy is kidnapped by aliens as his father, Michael, tries to save him. Billy's presence is felt, though we only catch sight of him at the end when the green alien who has gone trades places with Michael.
Michael, in fact, is the real alien: A working-class guy who reads Ibsen and Kierkegaard belongs with the superior beings of outer space. By the end, Billy and Michael can communicate with each other by transmitters lodged in their molars. And Billy, who has been returned to Earth, understands that the green man will make a more acceptable parental unit than his own dad. In its own goofy way, the play skewers the pervasive inanity of television culture.
"Resident Alien" addresses the atmosphere children grow up in with a wily bemusement. But two other plays in the festival strike at environmental factors that endanger children. These plays, without intending to, set up a dialectic as they approach the problem of teen violence.
Naomi Wallace's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is set during the Great Depression. Pace, a tomboy with a particularly free spirit, hangs out with school chum Dalton, watching the trains pass by high above them on the trestle. They dare each other to race the train across the trestle, a sport that has already cost another teen his life. Both kids have parents who love them, though each suffers the extremes of poverty. Outrunning the train is a way to feel good about themselves - a way to prove themselves.
Wallace got the idea for her story from a friend in Kentucky who described running the trestle as a teenager. Wallace jeers at the idea that youth crime is a result of watching violent TV and movies. She cites economic forces pressing on the family, poor education, and a want of support services for poor children as the primary causes of crime.
William Mastrosimone's Like Totally Weird takes the position that media violence directly contributes to youth violence. The first half-hour or so is very funny, as we don't know what young Kenny and Jimmy are up to. The kids have invaded movie mogul Russ Rigel's house, and their high-energy antics don't seem too threatening - until Kenny produces a gun.
Kenny has seen Rigel's most-violent film 17 times - and he has seen all Rigel's other movies many times. Kenny wants to act them out with Rigel - and with Rigel's live-in girlfriend. Kenny wears a T-shirt depicting serial killer Charles Manson and quotes the murderer as he becomes increasingly cruel in imitation of movie scenes.
Mastrosimone rubs our noses in media mayhem - and in the errancy, hypocrisy, and manipulation of Hollywood moviemakers who exploit violence for the almighty buck. A troubled kid with a media-violence education (video games are included in the scenario), he tells us, is a sociopath trying to make media fantasies real.
Another kind of abuse - molestation by a stranger - lies at the heart of Jane Martin's Mr. Bundy. Only this time, it's the fear of abuse that motivates the adult characters rather than a precipitating incident. The victim in this play is an old man who had once been convicted of child molestation many years before.
When Robert learns that a convicted child molester lives next door, he forbids his eight-year-old daughter to visit the old man again, even though the child has spent a great deal of time with Mr. Bundy over the past two years with no sign of abuse. Robert's wife believes the old man has paid for his former crimes, overcome any proclivities, and deserves a chance at forgiveness, but she promises to be vigilant. When Robert learns his daughter has paid the old man another visit, he beats the old man horribly.
Though Martin only scratches the surface of the ethical and religious issues she raises, by the end of the play they are so complex that they require our absolute attention.
The theater has always been a forum for ideas, although seldom does the work of so many fine writers converge so forcefully on similar themes at once. And this year, festivalgoers had to think about the coarsening of culture, the spirit of revenge, and the needs of children.
"I do believe in the windsock theory," says Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theatre. "The wind blows, and it catches your cloth in a certain direction. I think a lot of the good writers are thinking [about children].... And a lot of the writers have finally reached the age where they are financially stable enough to have children," Mr. Jory continues.
In the world of theater, where writers may have to wait a long time before they can have them, he says, "Children are centers of light when they come into a theater building."