A Grip On Life as Delicate as Butterfly Wings—BERNICE/BUTTERFLY at Hedgerow

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Nagle Jackson’s career path has gone from actor to director to playwright.   In between, he served as Artistic Director for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.  It was during this time that he met and worked with Hedgerow’s Artistic Director Penelope Reed.  A lifelong friendship was forged and now Jackson is Hedgerow’s Playwright-in-Residence.  The Rose Valley company has produced several of his works, the current offering being BERNICE/BUTTERFLY: A TWO-PART INVENTION.  Making their Hedgerow debuts in the production are long-time People’s Light & Theatre Company members Ceal Phelan and Peter DeLaurier.

Ceal Phelan stars in the East Coast premiere of playwright-in-residence Nagle Jackson’s Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention, which runs April 7-23.

Written in 2003, Jackson’s companion one-acts were created as a showcase for two resident actors at the Denver Center Theatre Company.  The piece is an intriguing and funny character study of a pair of small-town residents in rural Kansas who have slowly been worn down by the random forces in life that so often wreak havoc on our souls; a very timely topic, in light of today’s economic uncertainties, government shutdowns and natural disasters.  In the hands of these two seasoned performers, it becomes a fugue of sorts.

First up is BERNICE AT BAY, wherein Ms. Phelan is a long-time waitress at a diner in “Smalltown, Kansas.”   Alone onstage for almost an hour, Phelan smoothly creates all of her regulars for us as she details the demise of the town and all of the businesses around her.  Deftly dancing between an earth-mother who worries that everyone gets a proper breakfast and a sharp-witted cynic, she treats the viewer to some wonderful bits of humor, followed by equally heart-wrenching moments of pathos.  We also get glimpses of Bernice’s life, and its many trials.  Longing for adventure—and escape from a troubled home life—she ran off from her strict Catholic school with a young tough who deserts her at a flea-bag motel in Santé Fe.  Bernice has spent the ensuing years mentally begging forgiveness from the one nun who showed her kindness and trying to raise the son that resulted from her misadventure.  Ms. Phelan is a master at saying volumes with her eyes and her expression.  She hits each comedic note beautifully and is truly honest in her portrayal of this woman whose dreams were shattered.

As Bernice, Ms. Phelan (a multi-nominee for the city’s Barrymore Awards) paints a very colorful picture of the denizens in the town and, other than a section on the history of the Santé Fe Trail that in my opinion didn’t add anything to the story, holds the audience throughout—even when a surprise twist occurs at the end of the piece.  I fell more in love with Bernice as each moment passed.

Peter DeLaurier appears with actress Ceal Phelan for the first time on stage at Hedgerow Theatre in Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention, running through April 23.

After intermission and a set change, we are treated to Peter DeLaurier having way too much fun in the early parts of THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT.  We are introduced (literally, via Mr. DeLaurier on microphone in the blackout) to Randall Kleinfelter, who appears to be giving a lecture at the American Philosophical Society on the title theory that the flapping of an insect’s wings can impact events in another part of the world.  (This is something I have pondered on numerous occasions in my life: how random minor events brush against other events and the repercussions ripple out to affect us all.   I had no idea there was a whole philosophical school of thought about it.)  DeLaurier’s turn of a phrase is hilarious.  Soon, however, we realize that (as in the first Act) all is not as it seems.  DeLaurier slowly lets out his line, plays us and then reels us in.  His moments of revelation about some painful experiences in Randall’s past are played so truthfully it makes you ache.  A veteran performer and a Barrymore Award winner, Mr. DeLaurier easily switches the gears required to tell Randall’s story of a man having to suppress his true nature to survive in academia.

The Hedgerow tech crew, led by Zoran Kovcic,  has done a great job of creating Bernice’s 50s era diner (with help from a couple of Media eateries) and what initially appears to be a rather pathetic lecture hall in which Randall extemporizes on The Butterfly Effect.  Clever lighting is provided by John Tiedeck; the audience truly feels like they are peaking in on the early morning shift at the O-Kay Diner.  The frighteningly authentic WalMartesque costuming is by the always spot-on Cathy Miglionico.

Mr. Jackson is also directing the piece—to the delight of Ms. Phelan and Mr. DeLaurier.  In the press release, the husband and wife actors both commend the playwright on his openness to what the performers bring to a piece.  As Phelan puts it:  “A play is a marriage of what a playwright brought to a character and what the actor and director also bring.  He’s done all three. So he understands the whole process.”

My only quibble with Mr. Jackson’s piece might be the order of the playlets.  The twist in BERNICE is much more unexpected and surprising.  Once the viewer has seen that, we are pre-disposed that things are not as they appear in BUTTERFLY.  But the payoff isn’t as much of a zinger as in Act I; it made me wonder if the two pieces could be reversed.  Just a thought.

Continuing until April 23rd, Hedgerow’s East Coast premier of BERNICE/BUTTERFLY is an intriguing evening of theatre.

Written and Directed by Nigel Jackson
April 7 – 23, 2011
Hedgerow Theatre
64 Rose Valley Road
Rose Valley, PA

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