Humility Optional

Fine performances save Humble Boy's iffy script

What are the chances that six of the best stage performances of the year could show up in the same production? Almost zero. Still, it's happening right now at Dobama Theatre's Humble Boy.

This very British play written by Charlotte Jones, while flawed, benefits from interesting characters throughout. And whether the actors are skating close to the edge of parody or mining more subtle characterizations, they are consistently on point and immensely entertaining.

Felix Humble, an astrophysicist and researcher, has come home to bury his father, a schoolteacher and beekeeper who apparently died of a heart attack. But Felix is soon stuttering like he did as a child when crossing swords with mom Flora, a tightly wired bundle of nastiness who has just had some plastic surgery.

Mirroring Hamlet, the show then reveals that Flora has been boffing a neighbor, oafish coach-company owner George Pye, and they are planning to wed. Moreover, Felix's former girlfriend, George's daughter Rosie, shows up with surprising news (at least it's news to Felix) about her own daughter, and a wise old gardener shuffles about issuing trenchant comments. Rounding out the group is Flora's best friend, self-effacing Mercy.

The pleasures to be had here reside in the performances, not in the strained, overly cute (if married, Flora would be a Humble-Pye) and laboriously metaphorical story (see, the dead guy kept bees, and his wife is the queen bee, and the drones are ... ah, whatever).

As Flora, Maryann Nagel is actually more wasp than bee, stinging her son and others repeatedly with devastating results. Yet she deftly negotiates a turn later that allows us to see a different side. Andrew Cruse does not carry the extra body weight Felix calls for, but his stuttering is spot-on, and he manages to craft a fully realized person out of some dense material.

In the role of the brash and ham-fisted George, Greg Violand works against his often-suave persona and delivers a minor masterpiece, showing his raging desire for Flora and disgust with her wimpy son. As Rosie, Laurel Johnson shares some of Dad's unvarnished tone, while shading it with believable tenderness toward Felix. Laura Starnik is a stitch as Mercy, fumfering and fluttering about, especially in a dinner scene when she unwittingly adds an odd ingredient to the gazpacho — a gag in more ways than one.

Grateful bows go to director Joel Hammer, who cast these actors and crafted an ensemble production of surpassing quality. Kudos also to set designer Ron Newell for his storybook cottage and grounds.

The script should end when gardener Brian Zoldessy's not-so-secret identity is revealed and he interacts with Flora in a scene that echoes with deep emotional connection. Instead, the play goes on and ends with a whimper. But the performances that bring us to that point are quite a treat.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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