Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Flying Crows: Adaptation of Whimsical Mystery Novel by Jim Lehrer

also see Bob's review of The Miracle Worker

Anthony Blaha and
Reathel Bean

Adaptor-director James Glossman has taken the Story Theatre approach in bringing Jim Lehrer's novel Flying Crows to the stage. The complex tale woven by Lehrer is clever and interesting. However, in its stage adaptation, it is also sprawling and discursive, lacking the cohesive structure which theatre demands.

Story Theatre is a form in which the actors intermingle, narrating the events being depicted and playing the roles of the characters in the story. Commonly, in story theatre, the actors will each play multiple roles. Story Theatre is a hybrid form combining story telling and an acted out play. It is a format most likely to be encountered in children's theatre and in adaptations of novels or short stories. In the case of the former, it may provide clarity and emphasize a sense humor or a sense of wonder. In the latter case, it may be used to recapture the voice of the author of the source material and the detail and shape of his narrative.

It is 1997. To make certain that restoration work on Union Station in Kansas City can safely proceed, a police detective inspects its underground nooks and crannies. In a hidden old restaurant storeroom, the detective finds an octogenarian named Birdie who has been living there since he escaped from a state asylum in 1933. Fascinated by the old man and his circumstances, the detective launches an extensive investigation which leads him through a labyrinth of people and places in order to solve mysteries surrounding Birdie and a fellow asylum inmate Josh, who aided his escape. The investigation takes us back to events occurring largely in 1933, but also to years before and after, and three "massacres" are explored, including a fabled gangland "massacre" that occurred at Union Station in 1933. The friendship between Birdie and George reveals the connection between them.

By Glossman's design, Flying Crows continually has us observing story tellers rather than the characters in the story.  Although Josh is never seen past his 30s, his role is played by the "older man" narrator (the veteran Reathel Bean), and Birdie, who is an octogenarian in 1997, is played by the "young man" narrator (Anthony Blaha).  Therefore, we are watching story tellers rather than Jim Lehrer's characters.

Employing costumes which are hung on racks and hangers about the set, four talented actors about play 24 roles. Dan Domingues effectively captures two contrasting personalities in his two largest roles. As Randy Barton, the police detective, Domingues displays vigor and humane curiosity, while he is palpably brutish as Amos, a callous, baseball bat wielding attendant at the asylum.

Reathel Bean is folksy and ingratiating as the nurturing Josh whose secret is one of this work's major mysteries. Anthony Blaha sustains likeably loopy notes which fit his principal role of Birdie and sustain the unknown aspects of his character on which hinge the play's other major mystery.

Playing in the range of a dozen roles, both female and male, and delivering a large chunk of the narration, Prentiss Benjamin performs with craft and enthusiasm.  Whether it is the result of the writing or her performance, the conceit that each actor remains a story teller throughout is most apparent in Benjamin's performance

Adapter-director Glossman opens with lively country hillbilly music (a la "Dueling Banjos") which nicely sets a storytelling mood. He deftly employs projections of the play's varied settings (with words denoting dates and locations) on a screen built into the rear wall at the center. The projections work extremely well with the slate gray institutional looking set designed by Drew Francis to effectively convey the play's various settings.

Ultimately, the second act drags on shapelessly as the detective travels about, discovering one twisty clue at a time in an extended series of scenes, reminding us that Jim Lehrer's novel has not yet achieved stage-worthy dramatic construction.

According to the script, Flying Crows refers to the name of the luxury streamlined passenger train of the Kansas City Southern Railroad which brought Birdie and Josh to Union Station. There is more than this bit of Americana laced into this whimsical piece of historical fiction. It seems clear that Flying Crows also refers to Birdie and Josh themselves.

Flying Crows continues performances (Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun 3 p.m./ Thurs. 2/7 —5:30p.m./ 2/14- 3 & 8 p.m.) through February 17, 2008 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-514-1787, ext. 20; online:

Flying Crows from the novel by Jim Lehrer, adapted and directed by James Glossman

Old Man (Josh, et al)…………………Reathel Bean
Middle Aged Man (Benton, et al)….Don Domingues
Young Man (Birdie, et al)…………Anthony Blaha
Woman (Janice, et al)………….Prentiss Benjamin

Photo: Carol Rosegg

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- Bob Rendell