Tuesday night, “We’ve Come to Believe” jump-started the 43rd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. It is this year’s iteration of the partially devised/partially commissioned/loosely connected anthology that gives the Professional Training Company (PTC) the chance to show up and show off for Louisville and the national industry leaders who may have jobs for them.
These PTC productions usually are a mixed bag, and this one had a few moments that fell flat with me, one disastrously so, but overall it was the most cohesive and satisfying outing I’ve seen in years. It opened as a preview of the Humana Fest and will continue in rotation starting March 22. (Humana Fest officially opens with “The Corpse Washer” on Friday, March 1.)
The trio of writers — Kara Lee Corthron, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos — manage a smoothness in their dialogue and diction that sidesteps the disorientation caused by the scene transitions in these shows. Guest direction from Will Davis sews together the individually named scenes with interstitials important to the play, instead of scene changes.
This makes the evening feel like a play — a single story. Through the actions in each scene, a trio of archetypes emerges to serve as distinct ongoing characters. I’m calling them The Cult Leader, The Individual and The Groupthink.
The Cult Leader is first personified by Sylvia Bond in the scene “Pure Love Now.” She exudes the charisma one would expect of a cult leader, but also brings a maternal — or what our society has come to believe is “maternal” — dose of guilting where a patriarch might use a threat of violence.
In “Winning at the Games of Life,” Josh Fulton is a motivational speaker whose message made a lot more sense than any of the other would-be Jim Jones’ of the evening.
His smooth and patronizing delivery made good use of sound, both in his vocal qualities and microphone techniques. While all The Cult Leader’s aspects had fun with mic play, Fulton seemed the most skilled.
The Individual’s most arresting moment came from Julian Socha. In “How the Lonely Live,” he is alone on the stage, lying prone, barely able to move, speaking to a disembodied voice. His search for individuality is wrapped in a search for a real connection to another human being.
He can barely move, but what movement he manages is figurative to the point that it’s basically contemporary dance. The movement’s juxtaposition with Socha’s more realistic acting and vocal work made for an evocative scene that forged a stronger and more emotional connection between character and audience.
The Groupthink does a little soul-searching in “Our Impact on the World,” turning to Facebook for self-examination. Davis staged this scene with no computers. Instead, the actors stand on glossy sections of floor, generally yelling at each other rather than talking to each other.
The emotional climax of this scene comes with the introduction of a Facebook-disseminated news story featuring what seemed like a stand-in for Seven Bridges, the 10-year-old Louisville child who committed suicide in January after facing intense bullying. It shocks and stuns the group.
Suicide rates among kids are rising. Many of those kids take their lives because of racist, homophobic and transphobic bullying. Those themes aren’t in any serious way addressed in “Impact” or “We’ve Come to Believe.” Kids like Bridges end their lives because they lack the agency to end the things hurting them. To turn around and deny them dramatic agency in death felt profoundly wrong.
A two-part story with a ship carrying a cult and a few accidental stowaways provided glue for the evening and denouement for our personified archetypes.
“We’ve Come to Believe” asks the audience to trust it, to follow along and engage with a non-traditional way of telling stories. I’m willing to drink the Kool-Aid, and I’d love to see next year’s PTC group take this story structure for a second voyage, with a new set of themes and archetypes.
“We’ve Come to Believe” continues again on March 22 as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays and runs through April 7. Actors Theatre is located at 316 W. Main St.