The buzz around town
Bumblebees, as a character in Humble Boy explains the popular myth, shouldn’t be able to fly. Aerodynamically, their wings just aren’t strong enough to support the weight of their round, fuzzy bodies. And yet, bumblebees do fly. In another play, this might be a heavy-handed inspirational metaphor, encouragement to keep going and achieve the seemingly impossible. But in this one, directed by Kristen Davis-Coelho and presented by Reno Little Theater, it’s just a passing observation of the overwhelming odds we each struggle against, as we fight desperately to keep ourselves aloft.
The play is set in the present-day English countryside, where Felix Humble, a theoretical astrophysicist in his 30s, has just come home from university for his father’s funeral. James Humble was a botany teacher and amateur beekeeper, and as the mentally unstable Felix descends into madness, he hears the angry buzzing of the now-absent bees. Felix’s grief is compounded by the discovery that his self-absorbed, nose-job-obsessed mother, Flora, has been having an affair for years with the loud and coarse George Pye, who is pressuring Flora to marry him now that she’s free.
Relations between George and Felix are already strained, because Felix dated—and dumped—George’s daughter Rosie years ago. Rosie and Felix have an uncomfortable reunion, but Felix can only discuss his feelings in scientific terms, talking obliquely about black holes and gravity. As they struggle to redefine themselves and their relationships in light of James’s absence, the mismatched group comes to some painful and, yes, humbling realizations about what they have made of their lives and what possibilities the future might hold.
With a cast of only six, this production nevertheless features some noteworthy performances. John Simpson’s Felix Humble is a pitiful, shambling overgrown boy whose anguish and spitefulness fill the stage. Cathy Gabrielli is delightfully unpleasant as the vicious and selfish Flora Humble. And Julie Douglass is entertaining as Mercy Lott, Flora’s meek half-friend, half-unpaid servant. The actors do a pretty good job with their English accents, too.
The play contains many references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: a widowed mother remarrying with unseemly haste, a mentally troubled son who plays rhetorical games with those around him, and even a ghostly visitation. But this is more than a modernization of a classic play—it stands alone on its own merits as an exploration of romantic and filial relationships. Despite some rather broad comedy (an urn of James’s ashes is an unfailing source of slapstick humor), the best jokes come from the subtle wordplay, clever puns and acidic barbs traded by the characters in their mostly mean-spirited banter. However, this is a serious story with some genuinely poignant moments. Unfortunately, the pacing lags on occasion—only so much can happen in one garden, after all. And by the time we do get to the end, the final twist isn’t much of a surprise.
Nevertheless, it’s a witty and entertaining look at one seriously disturbed family and the unexpected ways in which they cope with grief and loss. And you don’t need familiarity with Hamlet to enjoy this play (though it does add another level of meaning to the play’s themes). With more sting than a beehive—and considerably less honey—Humble Boy deserves plenty of buzz.