Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Butterflies Are Free
Author Leonard Gershe fashioned the crowd-pleasing story of a crucial day in the life of Don Baker, an aspiring folk music musician-songwriter, who is living alone in a studio apartment in New York City's East Village.
Baker, who was home schooled at the behest of an overprotective Scarsdale mother, has insisted on living here experimentally for the past month in order to determine if he can get by on his own. His mother (Mrs. Baker) has promised that she would not visit him until he has lived here for two months. However, on this June morning, Don's mother has called him to say that she is coming down to the city and intends to visit him. Don reminds her of their agreement and tells her not to come. In the next few minutes, Don will meet his new neighbor, Jill Tanner, an attractive 19-year-old divorcee and aspiring actress (there is a door adjoining their apartments), they will take an immediate liking to one another and hop into the sack. Shortly after coitus, Mrs. Baker will burst in uninvited, and discover Don and Jill in their skivvies. Act one curtain.
The focus of act two involves the conflict between Mom and Jill as the former tries to intimidate Don into returning to her Scarsdale home, Mom's realization that she has been wrong, and a crisis in the new found lovers' relationship.
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Don Baker is blind, and has been so since birth.
Essentially, the play is a rickety invention depending on contrivance and sentimentality to entertain. However, Gershe writes with such a deft touch that entertain us it does. Bright, gently humorous dialogue, a likeable young couple to root for, and an obstacle for them to overcome in the form of the snappily funny Mom provide sufficient assets.
Much credit for the present viability of Butterflies Are Free must go to director Eric Hafen's extremely fine production. It has a smooth, easygoing quality which allows the play to breathe. It is perfectly in keeping with the writing, bringing out all of the play's charm.
The evocative set design and use of '60s music is a terrific plus. Along with other artifacts of the era, the set is back-grounded with a photograph of the marquee of the old Fillmore East bearing the names of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Jimi Hendrix and a couple of "peace" signs. The music of the aforementioned artists and the breakthrough musical Hair is heard at the beginning and end of each scene. The impressively realistic and detailed apartment set is by Bill Motyka.
Michael Stanton Murphy is a sweet, believable, and touching Don. Lea Eckert clearly delineates both the toughness and immature naivety of Jill. Murphy and Eckert play well together, enabling us to feel the needs which spark their feelings for one another.
Katrina Ferguson fares less well as Mrs. Baker. Ferguson's words tell us when she has decided to encourage Don's independence, but she does not convey any evolution through her performance. Her Mrs. Baker is comedic and arch, when biting and acerbic would be funnier and more suitable to the text. Austin Tidwell plays the caricature role of a self-aggrandizing, supercilious "hippy" director of Off-Off Broadway plays as it is written.
There is a pleasant enough title song casually sung on stage by Murphy who accompanies himself on the guitar. If I remember correctly, it had some popularity back in the day. It was written by a young fella name of "Steve" Schwartz. Wonder whatever became of him.
Thirty six years after its Broadway opening, some of the humor might well be regarded as being insensitive ("guys are called gay; lesbians should be called glum"), but when played as well as it is being played in Morristown, Butterflies Are Free retains its ability to entertain.
Butterflies Are Free continues performances through June 26, 2005 (Thurs.-Sat. 8pm/ Sun. 2pm) at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Butterflies Are Free by Leonard Gershe, directed by Eric Hafen