Every family has its ghosts. They judge, they guide. They walk alongside the living, exerting their silent, inescapable influences over decisions large and small. In Mat Smart’s beautiful and elegiac play “The 13th of Paris,” the more we learn about the ghosts that haunt Vincent, a young man who flees his ordinary life in Chicago for the elusive magic of Paris, the more we understand why he has such a hard time recognizing happiness when it presents itself.
Theatre  opened its fourth season with “The 13th of Paris” last weekend. Directed by company co-artistic director Gil Reyes, “The 13th of Paris” runs tonight, Friday and Saturday in the MeX Theatre at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
Vincent (Cory Hardin) has a great girlfriend, Annie (Katherine Martin, in her Louisville debut), who’s smart, cute, quirky and surprisingly cool with Vincent taking off to Paris one night with no advance warning. Vincent holes up in an apartment in the 13th arrondissement he inherited from his grandparents with a suitcase full of their love letters, which he sees as a roadmap to the kind of wild, enduring love he’s not sure he has with Annie.
While there, Vincent conjures the ghost of his grandfather Jacques (Ryan Lash) for advice, has his eyes opened by an awkward, revelatory encounter with Annie’s friends Jessica (Tamara Dearing) and William (Neil Mulac), and ultimately faces the truth of why the suitcase only contains one letter from his grandmother Chloe (Kate Bringardner) for the hundreds Jacques sent. It becomes painfully apparent why Vincent can’t trust contentment, and why he is both drawn to and repelled by mercurial romance.
As we’ve come to expect from Theatre  since they launched in 2011, the performances and production values of this play are rock-solid. Reyes’ intelligent approach to the MeX’s black box stage makes efficient use of Karl Anderson’s charming set, framed by Jesse AlFord’s impeccable lighting design, which the company uses to create a particularly magical moment in the sky. Reyes paces the script’s tonal shifts so they transition effortlessly (but never imperceptibly) for the audience. Like all of Theatre ‘s productions, this play is highly theatrical, and key moments of visual surprise are given the design attention they deserve.
Hardin, seen recently in The Bard’s Town’s production of “The Exit Interview,” turns in a strongly grounded and authentic performance as the guy who questions if anything in his 21st century life can live up to his grandparents’ grand story. Martin has many subtly funny moments that have the audience rooting for Vincent to open his eyes and appreciate the relationship he has.
Dearing and Mulac are effervescent and endearing as a volatile couple who provide another relationship template for Vincent to question, quite the opposite of the dignified and lovely Lash and Bringardner, whose story unfolds for us and for Vincent from start to heartbreaking finish. Lash has the meatiest role in Jacques, whose heartfelt wisdom and irrepressible wit are inescapably tied to sorrow — he and Vincent never met in reality, and that loss affects every choice Vincent has made to bring himself to the 13th.
More and more, I find myself turning to Theatre  to see some of the best that contemporary American theatre has to offer. Three years in, they’re still in the boutique stage — lacking the significant seed money that helped launch earlier waves of professional regional theaters, most companies their age are — but I hope for the sake of Louisville’s arts community, which must grow if it’s to sustain the number of artists and art lovers who continue to choose to call this city home, that Louisville will continue to build Theatre  into a stable, innovative home for storytelling of the highest quality.