Under the artistic directorship of Les Waters, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s (ATL’s) main-stage season intentionally integrates the energies and innovations of the theatre’s annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Waters’s January 2015 revival and revision of Naomi Iizuka’s At the Vanishing Point, a memory play set in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood that was first produced at the Humana Festival in 2004 under his direction, acutely synthesized forces of emplacement and transcendence. Now undergoing gentrification, Butchertown lies east of downtown Louisville, only a few miles from ATL, and is the historic home to the meat-packing industry and the Kentucky School for the Blind. The neighborhood’s disused warehouses provided a place for site-specific staging in 2004, but the show moved into the theatre’s traditional auditorium in 2015.
Iizuka created the script out of interviews and research in Butchertown; ATL invited her back into workshop for the 2015 revival as well. The play employs only monologues. It begins with the “the photographer,” a figure based on Kentucky artist Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The action starts with Meatyard showing a blurry image on a portable projection screen. Having worked as an optometrist to support his photography, he reflects on the physiology of how the eye selects and arranges things, asking the audience to consider how we focus our perception. He tells a story about fitting a young solider for glasses and realizing that the young man had never seen the world unblurred before. Meatyard’s photography experimented with extreme closeup, with blurring, with overlap, with masked figures. He often took unadorned and haunting photos of his children. In photography the vanishing-point perspective creates a sense of depth, an illusion of energies stretching on into infinity. Similarly, the play provides closeups on Meatyard’s biography and a series of other life stories: those of the Henzel family, who worked in the hog-processing industry; and those of a bookkeeper and the blind actress he loved at the time of Louisville’s 1937 flood, when the Ohio River overflowed and hit hard in Butch-ertown, hence magnifying the deprivations of the Great Depression. All the stories blur, overlap, and connect to Meatyard as they move through the geography of the city’s meat-packing district. For instance, when the audience latterly understands that meat-packer Frank Henzel was the young soldier whom the photographer fitted for glasses, the grief of Frank’s death in Vietnam, already mourned in the monologues by his brother and his widow, wakens afresh.
In the 2015 production the mise en scène also conjured a sense of infinity and connection: Annie Smart’s set was monumental though simple, with a stunningly angled back wall, a raked forestage, and a patch of grass invoking Kentucky’s countryside on stage right. The space shimmered with light and video during sequences depicting the storm that caused the Ohio River to flood. At other points actors who played ghosts of the characters’ former selves ran in loping arcs across the expanse or stayed still, vivified by strong beams of light from the windows and doorways at different levels in the metallic back wall. Inhabiting this open and charged space, ATL’s At the Vanishing Point refused any fourth-wall division between stage and auditorium. Every character spoke directly to the audience; so much so that Bruce McKenzie’s performance as the photographer seemed so intimate, it felt unscripted. The stories accumulated into a structure defined by place rather than time: the river, the architecture, and the roads of Louisville [End Page 710] felt present in the storytelling, but the performance also seemed to happen in a shared space of memory whether one knew Louisville well or not. We were in the same space of mind and feeling.