By: Paulanne Simmons
In the 1950s, the working and middle-class playwrights, known as the “angry young men,” emerged as a major force in British theater. Although these playwrights were considered radical at the time, over half a century later, they have become part of our literary canon. Less well known is an angry young woman, named Shelagh Delaney, who at the age of 18, took the theater world by storm with her first play, A Taste of Honey, now revived by The Pearl Theatre Company in a production helmed by Austin Pendleton.
Rebekah Brockman, Rachel Botchan
Set in a working district of Manchester, England, the play depicts the gritty, knockabout life of the less than virtuous Helen (Rachel Botchan) and her much neglected daughter, Jo (Rebekah Brockman). When Helen goes off with her wealthy, younger lover, Peter (Bradford Cover), Jo starts a relationship with Jimmy (Ade Otukoya), a black sailor who leaves her with a very real pregnancy and very false promises of his eventual return.
Abandoned by her mother and her lover, in Act II, Jo turns to Geoffrey (John Evans Reese), a gay art student, who takes care of her and loves her in his own earnest and sometimes awkward way. Jo, who has learned rejection at her mother’s breast (so to speak), finds his love and caring difficult to accept.
Presiding over the action is a jazz trio (Max Boiko, Phil Faconti and Walter Stinsonthat) that never speaks but interacts with the characters in song. At times the musicians express interest in what’s going on, at other times they are bored or oblivious. Perhaps this is what a modern chorus looks like.
Promiscuity, miscegenation, homosexuality! Not surprisingly, A Taste of Honey caused a considerable stir on the English stage in 1958. But in 2016, The Pearl has to reach for something more penetrating and insightful.
Happily, the production boasts an impeccable cast led by Botchan, who breezes across the stage, bragging, complaining and flirting, all the while remaining hopelessly insincere in every emotion save her own self-love. She is often quite funny, whether we laugh with her or at her.
Jo, as played by Brockman, is a worthy foil. Where Helen is flamboyant, Jo is drab. While Helen can never be quiet, Jo parses her words as if each one is uttered with great pain, as indeed it generally is. Except, that is, when she is with Jimmy, the charming sailor who knows exactly what he can get from a vulnerable virgin.
If Cover as the rascally, eye-patched Peter and Otukoya as the charming and duplicitous Jimmy represent the testosterone-addled male, Reese provides a gentler, more sensitive alternative as the less assertive Geoffrey. His textured performance makes this complex character totally comprehensible.
But the most important characters in the play may be the bulbs Jo brings into that drab apartment when she and her mother first move in. At the end of the play, Jo finds them under the couch, where they have died from lack of water, soil and sun. If The Pearl’s revival of A Taste of Honey cannot shock us, it can certainly help us make sense of the pain, rejection, hopelessness and anger engendered when love is scant and sporadic.
A Taste of Honey runs through Oct. 30 at The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42 Street, www.pearltheatre.org. Photo: Russ Rowland