BWW Reviews: ATL Revisits Butchertown in Revival of 'At The Vanishing Point'
"At The Vanishing Point" did not click with me right away. I actually did not come to appreciate the show until a few days later, when I recalled a conversation with my oldest daughter about something that puzzled her: the copious amounts of food brought to, of all occasions, a funeral.
Like, I suspect, anyone attending their first commemoration of a dearly departed relative, she expected her grandfather's memorial service to be a bleak, emotionally withering requiem. And it was, to an extent. And while tears did flow, and the remembrances were earnest and sublime, the leftovers from the kitchen area were bountiful. Why, she asked, would people bring food to a funeral like it was a wedding feast?
My wife and I explained to her that, in a way, a memorial service is a celebration - not only of the deceased, but of the familial and friendly bonds which enable people to support each other in their grief. We also explained that, before transportation was convenient and expedient, funerals were one of the rare occasions at which distant kin could reconnect and make up for lost time. Funerals are a celebration of the connections people form throughout their lives, even though the connective tissue of those bonds inevitably becomes tenuous and incomplete. Memorials provide people the opportunity to connect the dots, to fill in the gaps of a person's crowd-sourced legend and sanctify the most taken-for-granted details of a person's life. They are where the ephemeral is etched in the stone of the mind.
"At The Vanishing Point," Naomi Iizuka's verisimilitudinal meditation on Louisville's historic Butchertown neighborhood, is in these ways a tribute to the drama of struggling to sanctify the ordinary. Iizuka brings together characters and stories that form the tissue of Butchertown's history while observing the awe-inspiring tragedy in how much is missed.
The play premiered in 2004 in an old warehouse in the neighborhood, directed by Les Waters as part of Actors Theatre's Humana Festival. Iizuka and Waters, now ATL's artistic director, revive the work 11 years later in the theater's Bingham Auditorium. Intentional or not, it is a fitting follow-up to last season's "Our Town," also directed by Waters and featuring several cast members from that production.
Like Wilder's classic, Iizuka explores the profundity veiled behind the day-to-day life of a community. However, Iizuka dispenses with Wilder's scene-setting almanac-style overview from newspaper editors and college professors. Instead, she and Waters focus on the significance of perspective - how each individual's experience forms a small part of the area's story.
The play opens with a photographer (Bruce McKenzie, veteran of "Our Town" and this play's original production) presenting blurry slides of his work, asking the audience what they each see. He gives the houseguest's welcome tour of his jazz albums and assorted knickknacks that matter to him - including his memories. From him, we segue into an interweaving sequence of monologues from characters directly and indirectly connected. They share stories, fill in gaps and redactions in each others' tales, and form a topographical, historical and spiritual biography of a place generally best known for its meat processing plant. Iizuka and Waters present a mosaic in which the truth is sometimes seen through camera lens, the bottom of a beer bottle, or perhaps heard through an invention that can let the dead speak to the living. As much as the facts create the flesh and bones of the neighborhood, the missed connections, mistakes and withheld details - and the characters' attempts to remedy them - create the soul.
Iizuka's research into the history and personalities of the neighborhood have yielded characters that are true to life. They are folksy and self-aware. How matter-of-fact or defensive they are about their eccentricities forms an intriguing spectrum along which to appraise the veracity of their accounts. Waters has guided the ensemble to the truth of their characters, making even the more colorful characters read authentically in the broader context of the play. McKenzie possesses great power in the stillness he can inhabit, yet brings a searching energy to his photographer's eye that contrasts with the foreboding air of inevitability with which his Stage Manager led us to the graveyard in "Our Town." ATL apprentice company member Cameron Benoit blends vivacity and desperation into the fish-out-of-water New Age enthusiast Pete Wenzel. Fellow apprentice Ali Burch and Louisville local Gregory Maupin inhabit a pair of characters who fire the imagination with what could have passed between them.
While he keeps the performances grounded, Waters reserves the bells and whistles for the technical side of production. Scenic designer Annie Smart has created a rust-hued monolithic edifice with sliding doors that captures the aging industrial character of the area, set against clouds lit by a setting sun. The allusion to twilight comments tastefully but truthfully on the state of the neighborhood. Lighting designer Matt Frey casts sepia tones over much of the action, partnering with Christian Frederickson on sound to provide the occasional punctuations of urgency in this otherwise lightly tense production. The majority of the soundscape comes organically via the innovative cello playing of Kentucky native Ben Sollee, whom Iizuka also provides with an "appearing as himself" monologue, though a touch of anticipation inhibits his performance from reaching quite the level of his castmates.
This is a challenging piece of theatre, with a conflict so broadly existential that it stretches for city blocks. More than once I was mentally backtracking to connect the plot points and relationships. But "At The Vanishing Point" further demonstrates Waters' confidence in theatre that asks the audience to bring their emotions to the ritual of telling truths masked in artifice. He and Iizuka have created a piece of theatre whose success rests in its prolonged effect. It took days for this audience member to experience what his neighbors only blocks away have been going through for generations. Talk about the lasting effect of art.
"At The Vanishing Point"
By Naomi Iizuka
Directed by Les Waters
At Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through February 15
For more information, go to www.actorstheatre.org.