Also see Tim's review of Wanamaker's Pursuit
Act one, "Bernice at Bay," is set in a diner in the middle of Kansas. The sixtyish Bernice has been a waitress there or decades, and we see her on a typical day, serving multiple (unseen) patrons and dishing out gossip along with the pancakes. Bernice has unsolicited opinions on her customers' lives ("That woman is crazy as a loon") as well as their food orders (green tea, she says, tastes like "water that's been standing in a Christmas tree holder"). With a lot of natural and graceful language, Jackson sketches not only Bernice's regrets ("Who'd have thunk I would spend my entire adult life behind this counter?") but also the gradual collapse of her town, which has lost its factories, its military base, its high school, and even its Catholic church (proving to Bernice how "Godforsaken" the town is).
Once Bernice has won the audience overthanks in large part to Phelan's warm, affable performancethe harsh realities of Bernice's dire situation begin to take precedence. When a customer calls Bernice a pessimist, she snaps back, "Pessimism looks good to me." But a clever last-minute twist (via another actor who intrudes upon Bernice's monologue) reveals what's really been driving Bernice and how much fight she still has left in her.
The second act, "The Butterfly Effect," is more of the same, only less so. The monologist this time is Randall, a scholar giving a lecture on "the nature of failure." Randall throws around words like "phenomenological" and "teleological," and describes failure through a mathematical equation ("where X equals thesis and Y equals antithesis"). It's all a lot of hooey, but it's done with tongue firmly in cheek, making it seem at first that the playwright is mocking this character who is as erudite as Bernice is plainspoken. But there's a twist here, tooand unfortunately it's the exact same twist as in act one, only revealed much earlier. (Later, we even get a third variation on the same surprise, although it can hardly be called a surprise at that point.) From there, "The Butterfly Effect" is a journey through the disintegration of Randall's teaching career and his willful alienation from society ("I have difficulty with people"). But where Bernice is a victim of circumstance, Randall is a victim of his own ego and calculated oddness. As a result, act two is a retread of act one, but with a far less appealing protagonist. Still, DeLaurier is excellent, his forlorn expression and haunted eyes revealing Randall's despair over a promising life that has spun out of control.
Jackson's language is just as penetrating in act two, full of little asides that reveal a lot about character. Jackson also directed, letting each of the primary performers luxuriate in the language enough to win the audience's sympathy. The production has a nicely relaxed tone, evocative of the small-town life it both celebrates and condemns.
Bernice/Butterfly hides that condemnation at times behind its gentle tone, especially during its first act. It doesn't always succeed; act two trails off into an extended diatribe that leaves a bitter taste behind. But it's an intriguing work, elevated by its two central performances.
Bernice/Butterfly runs through April 23, 2011, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $25, with discounts available for seniors and students, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.
Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention