Playwright Shelagh Delaney grew up after World War II weathering the bleak conditions depicted in this, her first play. Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop accepted the poorly typed manuscript in 1958. Its production program commented that Delaney was “…the antithesis of London’s angry young men. (A kitchen sink theater movement dealing with social issues lead by John Osborne.) She knows what she is angry about.” Delaney spoke for her class, generation, women, blacks, and homosexuals.
Rebekah Brockman and Ade Otukoya
Eighteen year-old Jo (Rebekah Brockman) has been traipsing around after her indomitable, young mother Helen (Rachel Botchan) for years, from job to job, man to man, flat to flat. We meet the two mid perpetual argument as they move into yet another cold, dirty, communal-latrine-down-the-hall apartment in Delaney’s home town of Salford-slaughterhouse out the window.
Harry Feiner’s Set Design employs every shade of drab, muddy brown and a dash of washed-out orange. Its backdrop is an evocative, charcoal-like drawing of sooty rooftops. The single street lamp and wrought iron fence at back remind us there’s no escaping environs. It’s a wonder the audience isn’t coughing in sympathy.
Rebekah Brockman and John Evans Reese
Helen is softly voluptuous and aware she’s attractive despite a hard, brassy edge lubricated by liquor. Appearance is paramount. It’s kept them both afloat. Jo is plain, yet takes no care with her looks except to be particularly scrubbed. Still, she refers to herself as beautiful and her sketchbook art as genius. Whether or not a front, the young child/woman lives by it. She’s feisty, sure of her opinions and choices even when unaware of reasoning, yet reads children’s fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
About the same time Jo is basking in the attentions of a soft-spoken, black sailor named Jimmy (Ade Otukoya) – one can’t help wishing Delany told us how they met – Peter (Bradford Cover), the womanizer Helen left, tracks her down, and, like a bull in a china shop, offers marriage, comfort, ostensible security, and a regular bar stool. He has no interest in dealing with Jo.
Rebekah Brockman and John Evans Reese
Jimmy’s leave comes to an end. He unknowingly leaves Jo pregnant, promising to return and marry her. She knows better. Helen gives in to Peter and disappears in a cloud of hope-against-hope proudly wearing her new weasel fur stole. She has no idea her daughter is knocked up. (Popular then, these stoles were made of full animal pelts with each creature’s mouth clamped on one another’s tail. Brava Costume Designer Barbara A. Bell who makes everyone look just right.)
The rest of the play concerns Jo’s survival and immensely moving (not saccharine) relationship with friend turned caregiver, the gay Geoffrey (John Evans Reese.)
Dialogue is effective, characters well drawn. The play gives us an unfussy glimpse of another kind of life. Part of its power lies in isolation, however, a kind of episodic ‘we two form a multitude.’ Though Director Austin Pendleton does a superb job with natural characterization, pacing, and stage visuals, he makes, to my mind, two mistakes that annoyingly interfere with dramatic impact.
Firstly, in this interpretation, Helen and Jo both periodically address the audience, soliciting sympathy, jarring us out of the drama instead of drawing us in. Secondly, the physical omnipresence of a three man jazz band who literally share the couch with characters, are asked to move when Geoffrey cleans, and look on so close to action that one’s eyes can’t help but drift where they should not, detract.
Music is a constant. People keep bursting into two or four bars of lyric. Helen sings something she once performed at clubs. The trio, it should be noted, is seriously good, the music well chosen. Unfortunately, however, we’ve gone way past period atmosphere into what are they doing in plain sight?! It’s as if Pendleton were insecure about the piece standing on its own.
Rebekah Brockman and Rachel Botchan
Acting is wonderful. Accents are excellent (and intelligible, not a given.) Unique physicality is well crafted. Rebekah Brockman (Jo) reads real whether sullen, having a tantrum, poignantly reaching out, or reflecting on complex possibilities. Rachel Botchan (Helen) offers just the right balance of selfish, irresponsible floozy and overbearing mom. Both performers portray iconoclastic survival tactics with uncompromising commitment. Arguments are fiery.
All the men are good as well, with John Evans Reese a stand-out as loyal, tender Geoffrey. A role that could have been milquetoast, emerges whole and nuanced in this actor’s purview.
Photos by Russ Rowland
Opening: Rachel Botchan and Rebekah Brockman
The Pearl Theatre Co. presents
A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Musicians: Max Boiko-Trumpet, Phil Faconti-Guitar, Walter Stinson-Bass
The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42 Street
Through October 30, 2016