At Lit's End

There's a lot that's good about Humble Boy, currently showing at the John Hand Theater. The play is literate, with eccentric characters, some absorbing scenes, occasional unexpected moments -- but somehow the structure eluded me. And all the esoteric talk about space and time and the habits of bees seemed more an attempt by playwright Charlotte Jones to impress the viewer than a means of adding resonance to the play.

Felix Humble, a brilliant young scientist interested in string theory and black holes who's hoping to find a hypothesis that will unify both our understanding of the universe and his own head and heart -- in other words, a pretty typical contemporary astrophysicist -- returns home from university. His father has just died, and his mother is planning a rapid remarriage. If this sounds familiar, there's a reason: Jones is evoking the plot of Hamlet.

Flora Humble is one of those monstrous mothers who have added so much color to contemporary drama -- the child-destroying black-widow spider, the queen bee who detaches her suitors' genitalia in the act of love. She's selfish, rude and easily the most entertaining character in the play. Her boyfriend is George Pye, a loud, vulgar Aussie, as different from her deceased husband -- who was a keeper of bees -- as humanly possible. To round out the plot, there's a neighbor called Mercy with a crush on Felix that he never notices; she is treated unmercifully by him and by the rest of the cast. The role is written half for caricature and half for pathos. Rosie is the girl Felix once loved, a robust Ophelia who's returned with a revelation. And there's also a bee-loving gardener hovering on the edges of the action. Note that almost every name has symbolic significance: Flora, Rosie, Mercy, Felix (and his unseen child Felicity), George Pye (in the sky). The family name Humble is self-explanatory, but it also helps to know that in England bumble bees are sometimes called humble-bees.

The Hamlet connection is a mixed blessing. If it sometimes stirs up an interesting association, it also serves as a constant reminder of a play with a power and scope that dwarfs Humble Boy. Felix Humble is a bit like Hamlet in his indecision, his cruelty to Rosie, his insistence on playing the clown, his thoughts of suicide, and even the fact that he's overweight. ("He's fat and out of breath," Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, observes before the duel scene -- a comment that has inspired centuries of critical argument. Goethe, for one, believed Shakespeare actually did intend Hamlet to be fat, but the English Romantics simply couldn't stomach a plump tragic hero and kept insisting that Gertrude's "fat" meant only out of shape.) I don't know why Felix is fat. Perhaps he's laden with honey.

The parallel partially works in one scene: an altercation between Felix and Flora that's reminiscent of the closet scene in Hamlet. In fact, the relationship between Felix and Flora provides some of the best moments of the play.

One of Jones's problems is that her characters don't seem to have spines; they're inconsistent. George Pye is sometimes a complete buffoon and sometimes a man suffering his own inner pain. If there were a connection between these two sides of his personality, the character might seem complex, but I couldn't find one. Rosie seems sometimes to want Felix back, and sometimes not. Flora is humbled by a gesture of her late husband's and suddenly becomes nurturing and tender as the play ends. As for Felix himself, it's hard to tell whether he's an absentminded genius or a blithering idiot.

Though all the actors have strengths, almost none of the performances really hangs together -- perhaps because of the weaknesses in the script. I never got a handle on Stephen Pearce's Felix. Del Domnik makes Jim, the gardener, gently charming, but this is essentially a one-note performance. Verl Hite captures George's bluff physicality, and Katharyn Grant is a lively, pretty Rosie, though sometimes a bit hammy. Mercy is an unfocused role as written, and Kendra Crain McGovern's over-the-top performance doesn't help. Director Richard H. Pegg has assembled an impeccable group of technicians. The music, courtesy of El Armstrong, is wonderful, and so is Michael R. Duran's rose-tangled set. It's Deborah Persoff as Flora, however, who makes the evening worthwhile, stalking her way through the action with icy conviction.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman