PTD finds the magic in "Humble Boy"
Felix Humble is a troubled man. At 35, he’s made only small progress in academia as an astrophysicist; he’s overweight and stutters when under pressure; he’s worn out; and he’s very angry about the missing bees.
Charlotte Jones’ dramatic comedy Humble Boy opens with Felix searching with rising frustration for the colony of bees tended by his father, a gentle but distant biology teacher in the rural Cotswolds of England. It matters because Felix is home for his father’s funeral and the bees seemed to be everything to his father.
Ypsilanti’s PTD Productions presents a warm, gently funny and sometimes magical staging of Humble Boy at the Riverside Art Center.
Director Laura Bird has assembled a fine cast, who comfortably make the shifts from comedy to drama to an ethereal magic realism. The early pacing seems a bit slow and there are a few awkward moments, but generally, Bird’s staging hits the right notes in exploring themes both complex and universal in the story of poor Felix Humble and his family.
Felix returns like Hamlet from academic exile to find his imperial mother already engaged in a relationship with another, more aggressive and outgoing suitor, and an old girlfriend with revelations of her own.
Jones’ play takes up a common theme: the troubled and never resolved conflicts between children and their parents and the obligations they have to each other. Felix is a scientist lost in, or kept alive by, his love for the most complex theories of astrophysics. It has been his solace against an aloof father and an angry and sharp-tongued mother. While his mind is in the stars, black holes and string theory he can escape from the smaller and, yet, bigger questions of his personal relations.
These conflicts play out over a summer in a flower-filled garden in a small Cotswold village in 1997.
Eric Bloch plays Felix as a lumbering and physically awkward man. He is also socially awkward to the point of being tongue-tied at his father’s funeral. Bloch captures the right body movements and the occasional stutter brought on by emotional stress. He makes Felix an appealing if damaged person who grows over the course of the summer.
Amy Griffith gives a wonderful performance as Flora, Felix’s self-centered, restless, abrasive mother. Flora is also vivacious, charming, and quite attractive in late middle-age. Griffith hits the mark on all of these many facets of Flora, a city girl taken from her natural environment to “waste away” in the country. Griffith avoids making her a villain and instead finds the complexity and inner conflict that motivates Flora.
Rich Roselle is a pistol as George Pye, Flora’s suitor. He’s dizzy with the prospect of making his claim on Flora. At first, he seems a gregarious, fun-loving man with a taste for the swing music of his youth. Roselle makes Pye a strong and forceful figure but in small and then more evident ways shows a darker, angrier and more possessive side to fun-loving George.
Liz Greaves-Hoxie plays the fidgety, shy, awkward Mercy Lott, Amy’s longtime live-in friend, who seems to have never made a life for herself. Greaves-Hoxie is all off-key gestures, spacey expressions and eccentric verbal tics as Mercy. She’s a nervous bag of bones but sweet in her efforts to mother Felix in a way that his mother never does. Greaves-Hoxie has one particularly hilarious breakdown that is both funny and painfully sad.
Mary Hopper plays Rosie Pye, George’s daughter and Felix’s former girlfriend. Hopper is a tougher Ophelia as she confronts Felix about how their relationship ended seven years before. Her practical, take charge personality is in direct contrast to poor, fumbling Felix. She has some painful truths to tell him.
Orion Silvertree is the mysterious “gardener” Jim, in overalls and long gray beard. Silvertree plays Jim as a gentle, slyly humorous man who knows the names of all the flowers and all about the bees. Silvertree’s deep voice conveys the special warmth of the mystery man. Silvertree also designed the flower-garden set, highlighted by meticulously crafted paper flowers.
Jones brings this comedy to a happy-sad conclusion that draws on magic realism and also on a very realistic presentation of coming to terms with the guilt and grief of a family loss.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Humble Boy" continues at the Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St., Ypsilanti, 8 pm on Friday-Saturday Aug. 24-25 and Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, and at 2 pm Sunday, Aug. 26 and Wednesday, Aug. 29. For tickets, visit ptdproductions.com or call 734-483-7345. Read our interview with "Humble Boy" director Laura Bird.