By John Quinn
Review: ‘The Gravity of Honey’
The season that almost wasn’t: Meadow Brook’s grave situation turns to honey
Meadow Brook Theatre avoided a major reordering this year. The financially strapped Oakland University was fully prepared to either close the enterprise or turn it over to outside management to be used as a venue for touring shows. An intrepid band of staff members formed the Committee to Save Meadow Brook Theatre and offered an alternative that kept the business intact. For their work in saving this cultural asset, BTL was pleased to award Stage Manager Sarah Warren and her committee the Publisher’s Award for Excellence at the 2003 Wilde Awards.
How proud they must feel to see their faith rewarded by the season opener, “The Gravity of Honey,” by Bruce E. Rodgers. This performance not only announces that Meadow Brook is open for business, it’s a notice that the company is not afraid to take on something different.
And different it is.
This quirky little two-person show is by turns funny and achingly sad, irreverent and philosophical. That the characters are so lovable is a gift from the playwright; that they seem so real is a gift from director and cast.
Father Benjamin, played by Thomas D. Mahard, is pastor of the oldest Catholic parish in town. He’s a tired man, comfortable in an almost thoughtless reliance on dogma and ritual to see him through his daily routine. Then – fate? the hand of God? some unknowable force? – drives Honey into his confessional.
Ah, Honey. This is a juicy role for any actress with the chutzpah to pull it off. To call Honey an unpolished gem is simply skimming the surface. She is bold and brassy, a little crude, a nightclub “artiste” whose idea of the good life is a five-show-a-week stand. It’s not her fault that she’s channeling a higher power, obsessively writing notebooks full of physics in creating an advanced mathematics to “quantify the soul”. What a short step from there to God Himself!
Of course the problem for the good Father is to decide if she is a modern prophet or simply off her rocker. Honey, however, seems outrageously prescient for a nutcase. Manard ably brings us both the priest’s early doubts and later dedication when he experiences his own “road to Damascus.”
Central to Honey’s limited understanding of what’s happening to her is her view of gravity, “The universal attraction of all thingsÉmy kind of force!” Everything, including the universal constant, is attracted to Honey. Lynnae Lehfeldt gives us a multi-layered interpretation of the character; she’s too good at this to let us guess where Honey is really heading.
Pillar of Detroit theater and the company’s new artistic director, David L. Regal, puts on the stage director’s hat for this production. With the wordiest play to hit here since “Copenhagen,” he never lets the dense script come between the cast and their audience. Just sit back and take in the lovely interplay between Benjamin and Honey, the one who BELIEVES versus the one who KNOWS.
“The Gravity of Honey” Staged Wednesday through Sunday by Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester, through Nov. 9. Tickets: $22 – $38. 248-370-3316. http://www.mbtheatre.com.
The Bottom Line: In times when faith just doesn’t seem enough, it’s good to be reminded that sometimes it’s exactly what we need.
Review: ‘Tongue of a Bird’
Performance Network soars high with flight of fancy
By John Quinn
Ann Arbor is like a bake shoppe for cultural pursuits. Take a portion of educated audience, leaven with artistic talent, season with the spice of college town ambiance, and, man, you’re cookin’ with gas! In a community that prefers biscotti to white bread, the Performance Network provides its audiences with cutting edge drama. Frequently this leads to a challenge to the taste buds.
Performance Network follows the entrancing season opener “The Sins of Sor Juana” with Ellen McLaughlin’s flight of fancy, “The Tongue of a Bird.” It’s early in Michigan’s theater season, but already we’re seeing strong roles for women in show after show. Again, in fact, we have here an all-woman cast.
The plot is straightforward. A freelance pilot is hired by distraught mother to search the mountains for a kidnapped 12-year-old girl. The devil, as they say, is in the details. In the neatest of “life as high-wire act” metaphors, Maxine has reached the place where her mother “slipped” – and committed suicide. Her grandmother, Zophia, who is given to seeing visions, raised Maxine. Maxine is plagued by the restless spirit of her dead mother. So batty grandmother plus insane mother plus conversations with the dead equal – what, another generation of mental illness? The real flavor of this work is in the characters.
The playwright advances the action with strong imagery and poetical language. Characters are given monologues that reveal their inner selves, often laced with extended metaphors. Some scenes seem doomed to soar right over the audience’s heads; at other times, you’ll find yourself trying to make connections that might not have been intended (are the tongues of grackles and starlings, “narrow, flattened, black” to be linked to the flat, black rubber bite pads used in electro-shock therapy?). And I’ll be the first to admit that one of the most gracefully subtle allusions did not hit me until the next day. I leave it as an exercise for you to figure what I missed. But I ask you: How often are you still mulling last night’s show over your morning coffee?
This lyrical piece is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. Ms. McLaughlin does not hand you a plot on a silver platter; she doles it out in bite-sizes morsels. The theater patron who’s not on the ball is going to miss the subtle flavors, and thus lose out on the experience. PAY ATTENTION, as your fourth grade teacher might have ordered.
Credit actress Robin Lewis-Bedz with keeping Maxine the pilot well grounded, if you will pardon the paradox. The bulk of the heavy monologues are hers, not to mention intense dialogues with her dead mother. Her line interpretations do wonders keeping clear what might have been murky poetry.
On board as Grandmother Zophia is Wilde Award winner Henrietta Hermelin, who has been succeeding with the “wise but eccentric” character practically since kindergarten.
This is pretty heavy stuff. Prepare yourself for an emotional adventure.
“Tongue of a Bird” Staged Thursday through Sunday at Performance Network, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through Nov. 9. Tickets: $22.50 & 27.50. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org.
The Bottom Line: Experienced theater companies can take risks; experienced theater patrons can, too.