It was about 7:30 when the lingering dusk finally bled into night as our buses rolled along the Kentucky bank of the Ohio, past the crab shacks and somber bridges, beyond the old Water Tower and deep into the country gloom. Our coaches seemed too big for the road, but soon they wheeled away from the river and onto an even slimmer thread of pavement, lumbering up into hills whose winter-dead trees stood like upended brooms.
Isnt this the party where they blindfold everyone when you get off the bus? a woman across the aisle from me asked a friend. Tonight was the big evening of receptions thrown by the Humana Festival of New American Plays to welcome its artists, VIPs and critics, the Thursday before the Actors Theater of Louisvilles blowout weekend. Until then I hadnt wanted our ride along the waterfront to end, but now the thought of being led blindfolded through the witchy dark suddenly seemed irresistible. Wasnt this, after all, why we were all here -- to drop the know-it-all masks we wear back home in favor of blindfolds that, with a little luck, would be removed in a theater epiphany? Wasnt this the seductive metaphor of theater?
Metaphors and portents seemed to be everywhere that March weekend. Watch Your Step. Welcome to Louisville, the sign at the end of the airports people mover said to new arrivals. Its one of those unintentionally funny notices travelers encounter, but it seemed to confirm a notion that Louisville is a town of signs and omens -- at least where the future of theater is concerned. For 25 years, the Actors Theater has been the countrys foremost incubator of regional theater. Most of Humanas big hits -- the plays that quickly took off in New York and elsewhere -- are immediately recognizable: D.L. Coburns The Gin Game, Beth Henleys Crimes of the Heart, John Pielmeiers Agnes of God, William Mastrosimones Extremities, John Patrick Shanleys Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jose Riveras Marisol, Tony Kushners Slavs! But so are the names of playwrights who premiered lesser-known work here, people like David Henry Hwang, Donald Margulies, Wendy Wasserstein, Romulus Linney, Marsha Norman, Emily Mann, Howard Korder and Naomi Wallace.
Not all the portents for the 2001 festival were good. Its energetic young coordinator, Andrew Crocker, had been in a bad car crash the week before, although he had walked away unscathed. This year was also the first season the event was led by new ATL artistic director Marc Masterson, the former producing director of Pittsburghs City Theater Company who had replaced festival founder Jon Jory, and so there was a changing-of-the-guard uneasiness in the air, even though most of the festival had been co-programmed by Jory and Masterson. But in the end, neither of these things dampened the festivals effusive spirit.
Sadly, though, blindfolds were nowhere to be had that first night. Instead, we parked outside a stone gate and hiked up the long driveway to the three-story plantation-style home of Maureen and Joseph J. McGowan. Hes the president of Bellarmine University and a refugee from New York, where he once served as a Fordham vice president. McGowan represents the New South in that hes a Northern transplant drawn to Louisvilles quality of life glow. Still, Louisvilles no Tribeca -- or even Hoboken. Downtowns dead -- its depressing, he admitted, referring to both the central citys nightlife and its many boarded-up buildings.
He didnt get an argument from me. Walk a few blocks in any direction from the ATL complex and youll find yourself trying to figure which Kris Kristofferson song best suits the desolate street youre on -- until you realize its all of them. But at the McGowans catered buffet the mood was fiercely optimistic, as women in French-maid outfits carried enormous piles of visitors coats to closets and men in vests poured drinks from a pair of strategically placed bars. Governor Paul Patton was there, as was Owsley Brown II, who owns, among other things, some of the states major bourbon distilleries, including Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Old Forrester.
Also on hand was Lucie Blodgett, a social columnist who is something of a Louisville icon. This gracious old lady, with her ever-present Nikon, sat next to me and in her languid drawl filled me in on local gossip, telling me about the time President Jimmy Carter, who had become entranced by his own sermon delivered in the presence of Pope John Paul II, began to dash off a stage -- before the pope.
But the pope was on the ball that day, Ms. Blodgett recalled. He stood up and said, After you, Mr. President.
The plays began the next day, and the ATLs lobby, along with its downstairs restaurant, was packed and buzzing -- the feeling was like a crowd anticipating a rocket launch rather than a play. Unfortunately, the first round of productions established the lackluster tone for this years festival.