A Strange Disappearance of Bees by Elena Hartwell. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Cashman made a promise—I made a promise, too."
Michael D. Nichols as Cashman; photo: Liz Stott
The premise of promise is at the core of Elena Hartwell’s play, "A Strange Disappearance of Bees," now being presented in the region at Oldcastle Theatre Company’s new space in downtown Bennington, Vermont. Everyone in this play, even the unseen though much spoken of Vietnamese woman whose decisions create problems for everyone else, has made a promise to someone else in this play. Keeping promises, like keeping secrets - an alternate theme here - is dangerous at times and that is, in part, what makes this play so intriguing.
Cashman has promised many things to many people. He will never ignore his ward, Lissa, whose parents have deserted her; he will never cease his quest to meet and honor his son; he will always be true to his long-time lover, Rud. He will also never allow himself to hurt another living being as he did during his time in the armed forces in Vietnam.
Rud has promised never to overturn her former lover’s promises to himself and to the others. Lissa has promised to love, honor and cherish Callum in spite of his inability to divorce his wife. Callum has promised to love Lissa truly and honestly, but he has also made a similar promise to his unseen wife who lived apart from him, but only next door. Robert has promised to both honor his mother and find his father which is a betrayal of the first promise. They have each set goals based on their promises and those promises cannot hold water which undermines their goals.
It is the two men at the center of the play, Cashman and Robert, who carry the burden of exposing the dishonesty of promises and it is the two women who are left with the task of holding and maintaining their promises to themselves and the men they love. Callum, whose promises run the risk of imploding all the time, is left to fend for himself by the end of the play even though it seems clear that if there is a winner in the promise-of-love premise, it would be he.
Just to make things more difficult, in the course of this play’s back and forth in time setting, covering at least the twenty years that both Lissa and Robert have been alive, both women find themselves pregnant. I rarely delve into this much plot in a review, but this play is uniquely multi-faceted and without the above I’m not sure how to expose what follows.
In the present of the play Cashman is dead, his Asian wife is dead and Rud’s bees are dying or disappearing hive by hive. She has no explanation for why this is happening, but she can see a parallel between the bees she cares for and the people she cares about. Like her bees the important figures in her life are fading away also.
Rud, the beekeeper, is played expertly by Melissa Hurst. She has the most amazing way of looking at people as though they might not really be there. Her role in this play is two-fold. She is the loving woman who nurtures both her lover, Cashman, and his almost adopted daughter, Lissa. When she speaks to the infant girl she is cherishing. When she speaks of bees she is clinical and a perfect teacher. When she speaks to Cashman she takes on an almost erotic tone of voice. Hurst is nearly always perfection, although there were three moments in the play when I just couldn’t believe her. I think this is a matter of tone. In all three instances when she should have been involved with a loved one, she was distant lecturer, a reciter of a line. I know she will change this with time and playing the role, but at the performance I saw, it was disconcerting enough for me to note it. I doubt you will see the same missed moments. She is that good an actress.
As the man whose actions set all things in motion, Michael D. Nichols is the absolutely perfect Cashman. This actor can cry with conviction while portraying a man whose masculinity will not allow crying. His joyous moments and his loving moments are precious moments. He takes self-discipline to heart and his failures pain him to a degree that Nichols allows to be seen and heard and felt. We are honored by him, reviled by him and repulsed by him. As Nichols puts Cashman before us he is the most honorable, least self-honored, indulgent human being imaginable. And his promises are negated by his needs and his impossible credo. What marks this actor as perfect is his honesty in every single moment he has on stage. To his credit, this role gives him amazing ranges to play and he holds on to every tight corner, every elevated ceiling and every hole in the ground for his life’s sake.
Simon Yokoyama plays Robert in much the same way, but without the constant strength and purpose. He sees vulnerability in his Amer-Asian character and he lets us see that as well. The talent here is almost surpassed by masculine beauty, a delicacy of features in a face and body that expose their maleness at each turn of the character’s growth.
Loren Dunn does very well with Callum. He possesses a romantic charm about himself that carries Callum to the center of each scene he has. No matter how many times he presents himself it is clear that the romantic figure he hopes to be is just a shade off the mark. Dunn knows how to make that very real and very believable.
As the curious centrum of the play, Lissa holds the entire crew, including never seen parents, in her thrall. Jenny Strassburg’s thrall, that is. In most conversations here she has the least to say and when she says it she takes control of the other players, strong as they may be. Her lusty character, her character’s lusts, are best handled by this actress when she flashes an intriguing smile, but when a moment demands an honest laying into of a character’s libido, she is off and running. Strassburg is simply marvelous in a role that never seems to make such demands.
The work done by director Eric Peterson is remarkable. He blends past and present with an ease and a style that gives the play a filmic fade-in response to scene and time changes. He is aided here by the superb lighting of David V. Groupé. The Peterson/Groupé combination is what live theater is all about and this play profits greatly from their individual skills and their collaboration. Peterson has done the near-impossible, made a play about death and loss and the vagueness of promised realities into an evening of lively entertainment and barely disguised joy.
Technically the show works well in Bennington. Wm. John Aupperlee’s set is fluid and provides an excellent setting for this plays convolutions. Liz Stott’s costumes seem to allow for the time travel aspect of this presentation. All in all, a job well done on all counts.
Is this the summer 2013 play to see? Ask me in the fall. For now, though, it is the finest stagework in the region and that should motivate you to go see it while you can. It’s an intelligent and compelling drama that you need to be able to talk about for the rest of the year.
Simon Yokoyama as Robert; photo: Liz Stott
A Strange Disappearance of Bees plays weekends at Oldcastle Theatre Company, located at 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont through June 2. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-447-0564 or visit their website at www.oldcastletheatre.org.