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Produced by the Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage at 14th and T to May 22

The Roads to Home

By Horton Foote

Directed by Jack Sbarbori

Produced by the

Quotidian Theatre Company

At the Writer’s Center to May 15

Playwrights sometimes hint at their own habits of mind when giving lines to characters, and I’m going to guess that Britain’s Charlotte Jones is doing just that in the opening moments of her nimbly Stoppardian comedy Humble Boy.

“I just have to find the right word,” says her stuttering hero, Felix Humble (Bruce Nelson), looking doughy and disheveled in his cricket whites at his father’s funeral. Felix is 35 and an astrophysicist, but he’s a little boy at heart, freaked out that his mother has already had a team of white-suited beekeepers (“They looked like astronauts”) fumigate the huge garden hive that was his etymologist dad’s pride and joy.

“A swarm of b-bees. A what of b-beekeepers?” he wonders as his mother approaches. “There must be a word for it.” Then his eyes light up. “An apocalypse of beekeepers.”

Mom, played by Jewell Robinson (and named Flora, because the men in her life all buzz around her), is not amused. She’d hoped Felix would deliver the eulogy at his dad’s funeral, and when he didn’t show up, she had to listen as an amateur etymologist compared her husband’s career to the life cycle of an aphid.

“There we all were,” she fumes, “waiting for my clever son, my golden boy, the Cambridge don to deliver his father’s oration…thinking, Oh we will cry, but we will be uplifted. But instead you—let me find the exact word now—you absconded. Buggered off.”

Felix hangs his head. “I’m not well,” he says. “I have pills.”

Words are important, and not just to these characters. The playwright makes a fetish of precise phrasing in her comic reworking of Hamlet (did I mention that Mom’s schtupping a neighbor and Felix is talking to ghosts?), whipping up a honeyed comic froth from chatter about black holes, bee aerodynamics, cosmetic surgery, and Winnie the Pooh. Jones is more concerned, in fact, with language than with dramatic structure. So her punch lines land with authority, and her various conceits—Felix stammers only on B’s, as befits an apiarist’s son, and the script is peppered with botanical Hamlet jests, including an Ophelia named Rosie—are enough to keep the play roaring along, at least for its first half. Roaring like…what? Like a lion? Thunder? A house afire? Perhaps like a swarm of bumblebees. And it sends the audience out buzzing delightedly at intermission.

Alas, it’s mostly in second acts that structure really matters, and after the break the evening is less persuasive, as is the case with Tom Stoppard’s riff on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But, oh, the giddiness of Humble Boy’s opening hour and a half, with its deft wordplay and far-flung references (“The Egyptians believed that the first bee was created from a teardrop of the sun god, Ra….The sun cried bees; one minute it’s raining cats and dogs, the next it’s shining bees”).

Alan Wade’s staging for the Washington Stage Guild may be humble in its physical effects—designer Tracie Duncan has had to create a garden out of little more than a plastic latticework and a painted patio, with a coiled rope standing in cleverly for a beehive—but it’s pretty grand in its performances. Chief among them is Nelson’s extravagantly distressed Felix, who throws his considerable bulk into tantrums and quantum physics with equal enthusiasm and his precisely calibrated timing. Alternately sniping at his elders and visibly puddling with self-recrimination, this vigorous examiner of superstring theory claims to be able to hear the vibrations of subatomic particles—“the music of the spheres”—and with an assist from Clay Teunis’ sound design, the audience gets to understand why they make him shiver and stammer so.

As his mom, Robinson is brittle and comically bitter. She’s not quite the regal creature the author envisions (the part was originally played by Diana Rigg), but she’s persuasive enough when registering concern about the son she barely knows. She’s also capable of delivering the sort of zinger that requires serious breath control (“I’ve been doubly unlucky in my life, to marry a biologist and give birth to a physicist; who on earth said God didn’t play dice?”). She and Rosie (a long-stemmed, coolheaded, and utterly captivating Louise Andrews) bare claws for a snappy little catfight at the top of a second act that simply abandons plot for a while to give each of the cast members a chance to shine.

And shine they happily do. Bob Barr putters amiably around the play’s fringes as a gardener who’s at once more and less than he seems, revealing the secrets hidden behind the patio’s profusion of blooms with Latin names. John Dow slurs and wobbles his way through a terrific drunk scene as Flora’s crass pseudo-Claudius, wearing headphones and dancing—even while prone on a lawn chair—to music only he can hear. Laura Giannarelli, as a dim bulb of a family friend—think Polonius—who says a corker of a “grace” at dinner, offers digressions so elaborate and mixed emotions so nicely delineated, they’re practically a play in themselves.

The author, by that time, is doing a lot of digressing herself, and Humble Boy just sort of peters out toward the end, though not without some lovely Shakespearean puns (“Exit, pursued by a bee”) and a few generously unnecessary nods toward a healthier family dynamic. Behind all that snappy verbiage, it turns out, the author has been hiding a heart.

Horton Foote is a dramatist of such delicacy—his plots so wispy, his characters so prone to moody reminiscence—that it comes as something of a surprise that Quotidian Theatre Company’s clumsy mounting of three of his one-acts under the collective title The Roads to Home isn’t rendering them entirely unwatchable. There are a few moments in the middle playlet that flicker with something not unlike life—the sheepish return, for instance, of a spurned wife to a room she’s just left in tears. But for most of the evening, Jack Sbarbori’s slack staging can barely muster the energy to conjure the variously distressed women who should be infusing the evening with a wistful brio.

They’re all introduced in A Nightingale: Mabel, an independent-minded Houston housewife; Vonnie, her unhappily married neighbor; and Annie, a troubled woman who suffered a childhood tragedy that is only now, after she’s given birth to her own children, warping her mind. Annie often stops by to visit Mabel, much to the displeasure of both their husbands, and on this occasion, with Vonnie present as a witness, she seems to be coming apart at the seams.

In the second play, The Dearest of Friends, it’s Vonnie’s turn to be shattered, at the revelation that her husband wants a divorce. In Spring Dance, it’s four years later (all three plays take place in 1920s Texas), and Annie’s on the verge of getting out of a mental institution—a fact that makes her the envy of the variously addled patients with whom she makes small talk at the institution’s cotillion.

Narrative is hardly the point of these brief works—they’re atmospheric character studies—so the fact that the performances are not only unpersuasive but also actively amateurish pretty much does them in. Nor is there much atmosphere being provided in the troupe’s design work, which is busy and more or less irrelevant to the plays—the cotillion scene is outfitted with enough white patio bric-a-brac to outfit a small hotel, when a bench in a spotlight is all that’s really required.

Quotidian has a sort of Foote fetish—the author is listed as an honorary member of its board of directors—but while the troupe has produced a number of his plays, there’s little in The Roads to Home to suggest that either Sbarbori or the cast is especially attuned to his work. In fact, if a theatrical sensibility informed much of anything about the evening’s execution, it’s not really evident. CP