Playwright Elena Hartwell got the idea for her play "A Strange Disappearance of Bees," when her own life once crumbled around her. She linked that experience to the trials of beekeeping and the attrition of bee populations worldwide.
Having gone through several years of production after an earlier developmental reading at Oldcastle Theatre Company, the show now returns there under the aegis of artistic director Eric Peterson.
Ms. Hartwell, who was in attendance during the Saturday matinee and conducted an audience talk afterwards, must be giddy with her play's continuing evolution, helped by astute casting and slick dramatic devices.
The story is set at Cashman's Bakery, run by small-town-saucy Lissa (Jenny Strassburg) who is several years deep into an affair with separated-but-still-married farmer Callum (Loren Dunn).
One day, the devilishly handsome Amerasian IT entrepreneur Robert (Simon Yokoyama) walks into their lives looking for his father, deceased Vietnam veteran and former proprietor Cashman (Michael D. Nichols), who was also Lissa's father figure. In the midst of all is Rud (Melissa Hurst) the beekeeper: Cashman's former lover, Lissa's female mentor, and the play's narrator.
The actors then take us on a temporal rollercoaster meant to stir and inspire.
Nichols was perfect as the old soldier whose wounds went far beyond those which earned him a Purple Heart.
Oldcastle newcomer Yokoyama's Errol Flynn-like glances cut through the entire show, all during his gradual transition from professionally predatory yet personally unsure to domestic and secure.
Dunn, who had one of his career's finest hours a few years ago at Oldcastle, in the title role of Wendy Wasserstein's "Third," was back again and in a role he seems to have perfected: seemingly aloof externally, but ravaged to pieces inside. From his evasion and lack of courage, there's great hope to see how he fully convinced us we will find self-awareness and humility, even if grudgingly so.
Quickly becoming an Oldcastle favorite, the ever-stunning Strassburg delivered the goods far past Lissa's artistic touch in the science of baking. It's easy to forget, when lost in those mesmerizing eyes, that Strassburg is an immensely talented actor whose versatility and stage presence is something many crave but never quite achieve.
But she doesn't let anyone get sidetracked by appearance. Strassburg's Lissa consumed us, making us love her, lust after her, and cry for her as if she were our own sister, mistress, and daughter. It was matchless theatre.
Finally, longtime regional favorite Hurst delivered Rud's even-keeled irony and embering sensuality in a package that had the audience eating from her hands as the play's moral compass. In rafter soliloquies on the fate of bees and apiaries, she foreshadowed and advised, a veritable one-woman Oedipal chorus reminding us why we were there in the first place.
Later, we took every word of Rud's to heart: Hurst's ability to rip out our hearts was flawlessly on display in the tears she evoked from Lissa, and from the rest of us, in several visceral scenes, most notably after Cashman's funeral.
The aesthetically pleasing yet utilitarian set by Wm. John Auperlee, assisted by Richard Howe, nicely complemented the play's historical swings. Also, Liz Stott's subtlety clever costume tweaks greatly aided that cause.
Lights by David V. Groupe excelled, and sound by Anastasia Haytko was well-timed. And as elegant an actor as she is, Sophia Garder is carving out a niche of distinction for herself as a first-rate stage manager.
Peterson and Hartwell introduced physically vivid time shifts to this play, where the movement of incoming and outgoing characters on stage overlap and intersect, but clearly delight the senses and keep audience members alert. They also allow every player to show off quick changes of mood and milieu, something which is manifest in how genuine their character passion is conveyed therein.
This is a deeply intelligent and evolving play with endless empathy and a dose of understated humor; its themes and acting are a must-see. As such, audiences would be wise to swarm to Oldcastle like Rud's bees, and take in the sweetness of Ms. Hartwell's honey.
If you go:
What: ‘A Strange Disappearance of Bees'
Where: Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington
When: Through June 2
Tickets: 802-447-0564, oldcastletheatre.org