Two Strong Hands

For years, writers Jane and Michael Stern have been eating their way across the country, frequenting places with names like Mamie's, Al's and the Busy Bee. They've described food and given recipes, but most of all, they've documented the way small-town eateries take their place at the heart of their communities, becoming the equivalent of meeting rooms, union halls, British pubs or central-European coffeehouses -- places where politics are discussed, townspeople socialize, and lonely people can find those who know not only their names, but whether they like their eggs sunny-side up or over easy. The Sterns immortalize proprietors whose secret recipes for lemon-meringue pie, ribs, hot pastrami on rye or mac and cheese are locally renowned; they pay homage to waitresses who know everyone's business, dispense comfort, common sense or salutary scoldings, and sometimes even call the homes of patrons who have missed their customary morning coffee to make sure they're all right. More and more mom-and-pop restaurants -- which, in a sense, define the very spirit of America -- are going out of business as super-highways whiz past main streets, fast-food joints pop up at every intersection and little towns suffer lingering deaths.

The Sterns would have liked the O-Kay Diner of Nagle Jackson's play Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention, with its circle of flashing lights outside. They would also appreciate Bernice, the tough-spirited waitress who runs it. Marvelously played by Kathleen M. Brady, Bernice is in constant motion, welcoming customers, serving up plates and pouring coffee, all the while delivering a ceaseless stream of talk. There are customers she likes, and one -- Ivar - whom she appears to despise. Bernice worries about Dottie, whose husband beats her, and she coaxes another customer to eat more than a stack of dry toast. She nags patrons about their spouses and their digestions. She's as quick to reach out in sympathy as she is to toss off a wisecrack.

Jackson, who also directed Bernice/Butterfly, has worked with the Denver Center Theatre Company over many years. He was responsible for the erudite and sometimes hilarious rhymed translation of last season's Cyrano de Bergerac (which he also directed). He wrote this heartfelt two-hander for company stalwarts Brady and Jamie Horton; both were last seen in The Skin of Our Teeth, in which Brady played a deliciously slithery fortune teller and Horton the tough-minded but often befuddled Mr. Antrobus.

The O-Kay's Bernice is also her town's historian. She ponders the area's significance in the pioneers' westward journey; she chronicles the stages of the town's disintegration: the farmers leaving, the closing of Montgomery Ward. Inevitably, her mind goes to her own history: the mistakes she's made; the route that brought her to this endpoint, an increasingly endangered occupation in a dying place.

In the second act we find Randall, played by Horton, giving a speech on "The Butterfly Effect" -- the chaos- theory observation that the flutter of a butterfly wing in the Amazon can eventually, through a chain of cause and effect, cause a tornado in Texas. Randall is having a grand old time trotting out every academic cliche imaginable, announcing periodically "I jest" or "I digress," racing back and forth from his platform to the blackboard to illustrate his concepts. They all revolve around the nature of failure. Jamie Horton has every professorial tic and eccentricity down pat, and he plays Randall broadly, cartoonishly, with tremendous relish. He smacks his lips over his own felicitous utterances; he profoundly appreciates his own wit. He smirks and prances, his hair plastered to his skull so that his face seems pinched and small, with dusty-looking, cloddish shoes peeking out from under his black robe. In fact, Horton plays so brilliantly for farce that I was a little taken aback when, like Bernice, Randall became serious and autobiographical. He is, it turns out, as lost a soul as she is.

Jackson's script is smart, absorbing and feelingful, and the actors create multi-dimensional, vulnerable, funny characters to animate it. Some of the evening's deep satisfaction can be attributed to the long association not only among playwright and actors, but also between Horton and Brady, who share an equally longstanding knowledge of each other's work; there's a kind of coordination even when they're acting separately. If I search my memory of the performance, I can unearth a few quibbles. There were times when a moment stretched on a little too long, or a point struck me as belabored. I wasn't sure I found the surprise that ended the first act entirely credible, though I came to accept it fairly fast. I also wondered briefly if each character's drop into self-confession edged on sentimentality. Then there was Robert Morgan's set for the diner. I don't want to carp, because it's really beautiful -- the warm colors, the precise, eye-pleasing shapes. But it seemed to me that the O-Kay Diner would have been grubbier, the stool seats cracked red plastic, the floor scuffed rather than elegantly tiled in black and white. These thoughts represent no more than a halfhearted flexing of critical muscle, however. If the passing of America's independent eateries threatens community, in their own way, Jackson, Brady, Horton and actor Mark Rubald, who brings genuine warmth to a tiny role, have re-created it. At least for an evening.

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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