Curtain Calls

Review: 'Byrd's Boy'
Platitudes on ice: Lost souls seek answers at the Detroit Rep

It was an interesting question playwright Bruce J. Robinson once asked himself: What possibly could have driven the son of a famous and much-celebrated explorer to die alone and destitute in a warehouse?
Yet out of the simple question came "Byrd's Boy," an odd duck of a drama now playing at the Detroit Repertory Theatre.
According to a brief report in the New York Times, Richard E. Byrd Jr. Рson of the famous Admiral Рleft his home in Boston on a train bound for Washington where he was to attend a ceremony in honor of his father. For some unknown reason he got off the train in Baltimore where three weeks later Рon Oct. 3, 1988 Рhe was found dead in a warehouse. His death at age 68 was the result of malnutrition and dehydration, with AlzheimerÕs disease as a contributing cause. Little is known of what he did during the period in which he was missing except that a janitor had kicked him out of the warehouse several days prior to his death.
In Robinson's fertile mind, it all boils down to "daddy issues."
And Byrd isn't the only character in his two-act play that has them!
In "Byrd's Boy," a black, middle-aged security guard named Birdie – how coincidental? – discovers a befuddled, but non-threatening gentleman living in one of the warehouses she patrols. Rather than remove him, however, she befriends him and brings him food.
Birdie quickly discovers her new-found friend has little memory of who he is and where he came from; clues that occasionally bubble to the surface quickly vanish. All she knows at first is what she observes: Byrd is fixated on Antarctica, planting flags, penguins, and banging on a homemade drum.
Byrd isn't the only lost soul in Robinson's drama, however. Birdie, a single mother of a young son, was abandoned twice during her life: first by her father at a young age and later by her husband. Yet she, too, rejects someone: her brother who offers her a better-paying sales job in California. To accept it could result in failure, a risk she considers unacceptable.
Until Byrd's memories suddenly return, that is.
To label "Byrd's Boy" a drama isn't quite accurate; there's little Рif any Рreal conflict between the play's two characters. But to call it a melodrama does it a disservice, as well. Instead, Robinson delivers a script filled with contrivances and platitudes, clichŽs and forced sentimentalism. It's a concept rife with possibilities, yet it generates little more than vague curiosity by the end of the first act; a limp sendoff at intermission offers few reasons why anyone would want to return for the story's conclusion.
That's especially true with this production, staged by veteran actress and first-time director at the Rep, Charlotte Leisinger. A monotone pace and oddly executed blackouts do little to draw viewers into the first act. And Natalie Chillis' unnatural line delivery – she sounds like she's reading words off a printed page rather than speaking dialogue -doesn't help.
An entirely different production kicks in after intermission, however. Gone is the lethargy that plagues the first half, replaced by an energy that – for the first time -truly engages the audience. It's an astonishing change – one that will hopefully worm its way back to the beginning in future performances.
Consistent throughout the evening is B.J. Love who plays Byrd. It's a nuanced portrayal that catches the ups and downs of the character's mental state. Watch carefully as Byrd disappears into his illusions – or is it his delusions? It shows rare insight and skill to do so little to convey so much.
"Byrd's Boy" Presented Thursday through Sunday at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit, through May 22. Tickets: $17. 313-868-1347.
The Bottom Line: An intriguing concept that lost something in the translation gets further lost thanks to a Jekyll/Hyde execution.

Tidbits: Theater News from Around Town
Madea returns in June; City Theatre gets facelift; MOT announces change

ITEM: Detroiters can't seem to get enough of Madea!
No sooner had Tyler Perry's pistol-totinÕ queen of brash started her run this past weekend at Detroit's fabulous Fox Theatre than it was announced she'd be back this June for six more arresting performances!
"Madea Goes to Jail" is the latest chapter in the saga of Mabel "Madea" Simmons, brought lovingly to life by actor/playwright Perry. Once voted by her high school class as most likely to end up in jail, Madea does just that. What she comes home with upon her release, however, is totally unexpected: a 16-year-old sassy child whose mother Madea befriended during her brief incarceration!
MadeaÕs return is scheduled for June 16-19. Tickets are $39.50 to $55.50.
For complete information, call 313-471-6611 or go online to

ITEM: Renovations are underway at Detroit's City Theatre, once the home of Second City Detroit. Located in the Hockeytown CafŽ next to the fabulous Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, the theater most recently housed an extended run of Mitch Albom's "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel" following its sellout run at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre.
The make-over is expected to take several weeks. A completion date and grand re-opening festivities will be announced soon.

ITEM: Although opera enthusiasts might be disappointed to learn soprano Jessye Norman backed out of the world premiere of Michigan Opera Theatre's "Margaret Garner" next month, they won't be sad for long.
Her replacement is none other than Angela Brown, an up-and-coming soprano who was originally scheduled to replace Norman once the production moved to Philadelphia and Cincinnati.
According to published reports, Norman left the show last week due to "personal reasons."
"Margaret Garner," by composer Richard Danielpour and librettist Toni Morrison, tells the story of a fugitive slave who makes a tragic decision to grant her children their freedom.
The opera opens May 7 at the Detroit Opera House. Call 313-237-SING for details.


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