In recent years Actors Theatre of Louisville’s artistic director Jon Jory has come under fire for the relative weakness of his new play festival. He should be happy that this year’s season was stronger. Like any other genre, playwriting is a craft, and if nothing else was evident, it was clear from the eight plays ATL produced in March and April that much of the art of structuring a play has not been completely forgotten. I wished, sometimes, the playwrights had had more to say; but it’s heartening that several of them at least knew how to say it.

Where the plays had the most trouble was with characterization—in fact, these new plays could be divided into two groups: those with characters, and those without. While novelist Harry Crews’ maiden effort at playwriting, Blood Issue, has some structural problems, it did have real (or at least realistic) people in it—very wonderful and very Crewsian gritty Southern gothic characters. That was enough to make Blood Issue, despite its structural weaknesses, the best play of the festival.

Writer and rake and very much his creator’s stand-in Joe has returned home to rural Georgia to his twice-widowed mother and assorted other family for a reunion. He is also there to dig up some truths about his past that no one in the family wants to face or know. It is difficult to take modern idiom and make art of it, but that is Harry Crews’ specialty, and the same language that makes his books so good made this play. “To tell the truth,” says Joe, and Crews has written this elsewhere as well, “I never could trust a man who could get through life cold sober.” And in another equally autobiographical line, his mother Mabel says that “no man’s a scandal in his own heart.”

The only other full-length play with real people in it, Charlene Redick’s Autumn Elegy, was much weaker. In this play a married couple, who retreated from the world together after the ’29 Crash, now must face separation as Ciel leaves her husband to go off to a hospital to die. It is a moving story, and the audience was in tears at the end of both acts, but the language alternates between flatness and a strained attempt at poetry. In the end, pity alone is not enough to make a play.

Of the plays without characters, or I should say in which the characters are given very little characterization, Steven Dietz’s was perhaps the best—as theater, or spectacle, if not as a play. God’s Country is about the Northwestern neo-Nazi survivalists who perpetrated a string of murders, robberies, and counterfeitings in the early 80’s. This is a play about patriotism turned to sedition, strong stuff. Dietz insists that he put no words in his characters’ mouths, that the truth of what they said in court and in their various books and publications is looney enough.

Linked over the course of the play are the trials of various white supremacists, the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg, speeches of men like Rev. Richard Butler of the .Aryan Nations, and the seduction and indoctrination of various members of the “The Order.” Dietz covers a lot of ground, and it is perhaps too much. Most of the actors play several parts, and with one exception no character is on stage long enough for the audience to get a feel of him.

There is something impersonal about all this, and manipulative. Central to Dietz’s Aryan iconography is a young blonde boy, who hardly speaks, but whom the audience over the course of the play sees in various stages of indoctrination. He is the future, I suppose, the child of angry parents who will carry his hate over into the next generation, no matter how many white supremacists the FBI shoots into oblivion; he is representative of the young people who gathered last December on Whidbey Island off of Seattle to commemorate the death of Robert Jay Matthews, The Order’s founder. He is a symbol; the trouble is he’s all symbol. Plays work best when they have people in them, not mouthpieces and straw men. You run into problems when there is no literal level to your play, and Dietz doesn’t have one—except the utterly literal level of his research. He has not written a play, he has staged a documentary, even if he has staged it well.

The festival’s one disaster was Constance Congdon’s Tales of the Lost Formicans, an extraterrestrial anthropology class on humans. Much better was Richard Strand’s The Bug, a satire on the bureaucracy of corporate America (an employee concerned about job security unleashes chaos with a simple question). It was, again, a two-dimensional piece of work—the characters were vice presidents and underlings, not people. Of course that’s precisely Strand’s point, that the office makes automatons of us, and the play as a whole was well-structured and amusing.

Even more satirical—often obscenely so—was Arthur Kopit’s Bone-the-Fish, in which an ex-producer undergoes an increasingly horrible set of humiliations in order to earn the chance to get in on the “biggest film deal of his life. In its terrible way this play has as good a first act as a satire can. Suffice it to say that all the language Californians use metaphorically to describe humiliation becomes, in Kopit’s Hollywood, literal. The hapless Jerry bleeds for this deal, and that’s just for starters. Unfortunately, once the deal-making moves to the house of rock star Zalinka in the second act, the play loses all of its momentum and much of its humor, keeping only its rather sharp edge.

The most traditional play was, fittingly enough, William F. Buckley Jr.’s adaptation of his novel Stained Glass. Rumor had it the actors had some trouble with the language—they said the characters all spoke as Buckley speaks—and that rewrites were coming in from Buckley in Switzerland, usually a sign of some trouble. But the actors didn’t stumble, and while I found Blackford Oakes as unsympathetic a character on stage as I do in print, this was a workmanlike if highly traditional play. Bill McNulty, especially, was excellent as Count Axel Wintergrin, fighting to reunify the two Germanics following World War II. The cause is a dead one, and the period long enough ago to be dated, while perhaps not quite far back enough to be history, but in Buckley’s working out of the dangers of detente, his play has currency as a standing warning to advocates of game strategy theory in Washington.

Last but not least comes Brad. Korbesmeyer’s Incident at San Bajo, chosen from among 1,700 other submissions to win ATL’s one-act play contest. His very nice play is the story of seven survivors of the (fictional) poisoning of an entire small town in California, told from the point of view of each. Incident at San Bajo, like God’s Country, is constructed like a documentary; there is no plot, just the winding out of the characters’ fantastic stories. But Korbesmeyer does that well, and unlike Steven Dietz, Korbesmeyer has assembled a wonderful and varied set of characters.

Jon Jory is proud, I would think, of his reputation for taking risks. His whole formation of a new play festival was a risk for which he should only be congratulated. He has taken the further risk of commissioning a large number of new plays from established writers who are not experienced as playwrights (like Crews and Buckley this year, or Jimmy Breslin last year, or E.L. Doctorow next year). Sometimes this pans out; the Crews play especially is quite good. But sometimes it doesn’t. And while I understand that the job of wading through thousands of unsolicited scripts was colossal, it is evident from the Korbesmeyer play—a better play even in a staged reading than several of the commissioned works that had full productions—what is available out there, often from unknowns. (Mr. Korbesmeyer had been working in management for a fast-food company and trying unsuccessfully to break into television.)

One of the best-known plays to come out of Louisville, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, which has been on Broadway and was made into a movie, came out of nowhere, back in 1980, in the fourth year of the festival. Ditto for Beth Henley, whose Crimes of the Heart also premiered in Louisville, in 1979. Except for the one-acts, which can still come in unsolicited and get their reading, the Great American Play Contest Jory founded in 1978 was discontinued in 1986, and I regret that.

In garnering Doctorow and fiction writer Tama Janowitz for next year’s festival Jory has gone straight to New York. That’s too bad, as no place is more provincial. It’s worth remembering that another of Jon Jory’s most successful finds was Getting Out, a play in the 1978 season written by not just an unknown but an unknown Louisvillian named Marsha Norman. It also seems noteworthy to me to see that some of the best acting performances in this 1989 festival were by ATL regulars or former regulars—Bill McNulty in Stained Glass, Bob Burris and Anne Pitoniak in Blood Issue. Long-time company member Adale O’Brien also did a nice job in Buckley’s play. ATL has found, commissioned, and produced a lot of good work, but it is this local (or regional) talent that it should be happiest about and that is, I believe, its strongest asset.