by Barbara Waldinger
What a pleasure to attend the appealing and comfortable McConnell Theatre at Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where Barrington Public Theater makes its debut—Breakwater by Jim Frangione. Facing the audience is a deep, wide proscenium stage, depicting beige sand dunes in Hyannis circa 1990, where a stunning blue backdrop beckons us to rush into the water. Beautifully directed by Kelly Galvin and performed by a top-notch cast, this is an auspicious beginning for the new theatre company.
Barrington Public Theater’s founders are Deann Simmons Halper (Executive Director/actor), Anne Undeland (Artistic Associate/playwright/actor) and Jim Frangione (Artistic Director/director/playwright/actor). The mission of their Wet Ink series of readings is to “nurture and develop new work,” written by local playwrights. The aim is ultimately to offer year-round full productions using local actors and directors.
Breakwater centers on Bobbi Herring (the dynamic Raya Malcom), an angry young woman in her late twenties, who drives a taxi, still lives with her Mom, and deduces, based upon obtaining a copy of her birth certificate, that the deceased, abusive man she thought was her father is not—the name of her biological father is left blank. Thus begins a search for her parent, who her mother confesses, could be either of two unnamed men. The twist in this story is that one of them might be John F. Kennedy (Ryan Winkles, nailing that unique accent), whose ghost weaves in and out of the play.
According to Frangione, the script has not yet undergone a rigorous process of revision, so this production, professional though it is, is a sort of workshop. That may explain some of the problematical aspects of the piece. What is this play really about? The search for a biological parent? But Bobbi’s quest seems to have a random origin—a chance omission on her birth certificate. And in the all too brief scene in which she confronts her mother, Joanne (Anne Undeland) with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother’s husband, Joanne’s weak apology and Bobbi’s muted acceptance of it, seems unbelievable. It’s as though the play has other concerns, like Bobbi’s attempt to escape from her sordid past and find her way into a brighter future that is more satisfying than driving a cab. She makes a passing reference to the time she spent in a “looney bin” and refuses to accede to her mother’s demand that she continue to see a therapist. Determined to make it on her own—to move out of her mother’s home and get an apartment—she endeavors to sell her lovingly restored 1960 Lincoln, which she claims to be worth a fortune, having belonged to JFK. She even plans to go back to school (which is why she needs that birth certificate). Frangione thus provides valuable details about the personality and struggles of this young woman. But if the play is about Bobbi’s journey from darkness to light, why the emphasis on Kennedy? Bobbi’s mother is still consumed with her love for him all those years ago, believing that he was the father of her child. When Kennedy’s ghost appears however, he reminisces philosophically about his life, quoting from his favorite poets: Alan Seeger (“Rendez-vous with Death”), and Robert Frost (“Birches”), but touches only sparingly on his relationship with Joanne and not at all with the paternity of Bobbi.
One of the exciting aspects of attending theatre in the Berkshires is the chance to see new work, with its highs and lows. In many cases, the talent of the director, actors and artistic teams can go far to overcome the weaknesses of the script. Raya Malcolm’s Bobbi is so animated onstage, even when she is sitting in her cab, that her incandescence reaches every corner of the theatre. The best scenes, both written and performed, are the ones between Bobbi and Eben Crocker/Taylor Hallett (both played by the versatile David Joseph using a working class Boston accent). Eben is Bobbi’s boss, the taxi dispatcher, who trades insults with her and threatens her job, but ultimately cares for her. The minor character Taylor, in what he thinks is a date with the mercurial Bobbi, switches from macho, to scared, to seduced by her in just a few minutes. Ryan Winkles goes a long way to convince us that JFK has come back to life, with his slow walk and musical accent, parted hair, and smiling delivery, though none of the icon’s imitators can ever recreate his magic. Anne Undeland, a lovely actress, is unfortunately not given the lines that would establish a realistic relationship with her daughter. Finally, Leigh Strimbeck deftly creates the dual characters of the town clerk and an alcoholic neighbor who shows a fondness for Bobbi.
Director Kelly Galvin takes advantage of the large stage to create the many different locations in this production. However, the scenery would have been less intrusive if set designer Carl Sprague had used simple indications of place, left onstage throughout the play, rather than wheeling large pieces of furniture in and out to define each area. John Musall provides us with glorious colored lighting and Brittney Belz’s costumes suit each character perfectly. Kudos to Jason Brown, whose soundscape brings Cape Cod to life in every scene.
New theatre companies are always welcome in the Berkshires and we look forward to hearing more from the Barrington Public Theater and its talented troupe in the near future.
Breakwater runs from June 13-23. Tickets may be purchased online at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 413-579-8088.
Barrington Public Theater presents Breakwater by Jim Frangione. Directed by Kelly Galvin. Cast: Raya Malcolm (Bobbi Herring), Leigh Strimbeck (Tippy Dempsey/Town Clerk), David Joseph (Eben Crocker/Taylor Hallett, Ryan Winkles (JFK), Anne Undeland (Joanne Herring). Lighting Design: John Musall; Set Design: Carl Sprague; Costume Design: Brittany Belz; Sound Design: Jason Brown; Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein.
Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission. Barrington Public Theater, Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA., closing June 23. https://www.barringtonpublictheater.org/