Clearly Pittsburgh’s Amy Hartman has many original, varied and fascinating ideas for plays, including Mad Honey produced by Unseam’d Shakespeare Company. It has elements in common with The Chicken Snake, at Pittsburgh Playhouse in April last year and Mazel May 2007’s final production by The Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh. All three plays stay full of invention, imagination and compassion portraying the dark undercurrents of dysfunctional families. Director Robin Walsh keeps this production dynamic and human and also evokes solid, truthful performances from most of the cast.
The story has some Eugene O’Neill shadows along with suggestions of ancient Greek legends, a valid dovetail, especially given Mourning Becomes Electra which concerns another haunted family.
In 1936, in rural eastern Pennsylvania, teenage Willow prompts the murder of the man who made her pregnant, her father. Postman Tibits, an older man who loves her, is the poisoner using “mad honey,” something which real bees have accidentally created as far back as ancient Greece. Tibits arranges to have the newborn twins go to separate foster homes. One of them belongs to Myrtle Peterson who also fancies Mr. Tibits. Willow, having disguised herself as a man known as Billy, in 1952, tries to reconnect with her teen son Stewart. Meanwhile he has learned how to make “mad honey” and has used it to sicken bullies at his school. But then he gets involved with neighboring Penny Jenners and complications ensue.
The first part of the play crosses back and forth in time and may not seem completely easy to grasp. Given fairly straightforward language with only a few traces of folksy intonations, the concept acquires an interesting mysterious dimension, so that, in effect, the audience has to do some work to figure out what’s happening, although that’s not too complex.
You might have extra work, though, trying to understand Paul Ford as Tibits, if he plays it as he did on opening night. That could become a problem; he has major exposition. Tibits is supposed to be Irish and, evidently, Ford works hard at the accent. But, when I saw him, he raced through too many lines with only about one-third of his dialogue becoming clear, even though the characterization seemed genuine. On the other hand, Autumn Ayers gave an exceptionally convincing performance as Willow transformed into Billy, tough on the outside, vulnerable and sorrowful on the inside. Matt McNear’s version of Stewart also remained totally believable and definitive. Alas, Laurie Klatscher didn’t get any of the potential comedy out of Myrtle often overplaying loudly. Too bad; there seem to be a lot of possibilities for the role to be funny, a good way to lighten parts of the play and create more variety.
This is not the first production. There was one in Bloomington, Indiana about three years ago and evidently Hartman has made several revisions since. This version certainly works well and commands attention. It could become especially effective if Ford and Klatscher get perceptive guidance from director Walsh.
Mad Honey continues at the Studio Theater, the Cathedral of Learning, Oakland, through July 17th. ProArts Tickets is the source : 412/394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org. Website: www.unseamd.com