There is something particularly special about the opening night of a brand-new play. These characters, these situations, these thoughts, these feelings -– they have never been performed for the public prior to tonight. Thursday night’s performance of the Kenan Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of Mark Perry’s The Will of Bernard Boynton was no exception.
We were greeted in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre by an acting area that was mostly a cutaway view of a single room. Metal bunk beds stage right; a kitchen table pushed up against the bed; one kitchen chair; one recliner chair; an old kitchen sink upstage left; a three-foot tall refrigerator; a wood stove; and lots and lots of junk. Shortly before show time, Bernard Boynton (Bernie) enters and plants himself in the recliner. He remains motionless for about a minute. Then the house lights and the stage lights go down.
When the stage lights come up, our attention is focused is downstage right, outside the little house where Evan Boynton is speaking into a voice recorder. Bernie has thus been established as “part of the set” -– a “presence” rather than a “person.” Scenes that are in the present are acted around him as though he were not there. Bernie is dead, and we are drawn into the world of The Will of Bernard Boynton, which is co-directed by dramatist Mark Perry and PlayMakers Repertory Company veteran Kathryn Hunter-Williams. What has Bernie bequeathed to his family? To the world? To us?
This production easily overcomes a major roadblock -– age. All four characters are played by college-age actors. And these actors must play two different sets of ages. In the past, Evan is 21 and Rich is 17; Bernie is in his forties and Lisa is, perhaps, a bit younger. In the present, Evan is 41, Rich is 38, Lisa is around 60, and Bernie is present only as a spirit. As if this were not difficult enough, the scenes shift back and forth between past and present. All of that said, these talented young actors deliver with aplomb.
Evan (played by Simon Wolf) is our gateway into the world of the play. As he speaks into his hand-held recorder, he shares his thoughts and feelings with the audience. Evan is the most cerebral and most spiritual of them all. He is a published writer (seemingly dictating material for his next book). He is also a college professor and a world traveler. He is a Muslim; he lives in North Carolina; his wife lives in Turkey. Simon Wolf’s voice soothingly invites us in, making us comfortable in this world. We eventually learn that as a writer he has been trying to “save the world … with words.”
Rich (played by Samuel Silverstein) shows us just how different two siblings can be. Playfully witty (as well as cynical and sarcastic) and a lover of drink, he deals with his problems in a different fashion. Samuel Silverstein’s delivery of Rich’s wit keeps us laughing throughout most of the first act and helps keep us comfortable during the more raw and soul-searching moments of the second act. He treats us to such gems as “fang shoo-ee” (feng shui) and “serious as a fart-attack.” Rich’s alcoholism, like his father’s ,limits and defines his life.
Bernie (played by Drew Patrick) is a broken man. An alcoholic with two failed marriages and a failed career in country music, he ekes out a meagre existence as a home-based auto mechanic. We learn early on that he has committed suicide. In the flashbacks, we see him longing for earlier happy times. We see him clinging to the notion that his second wife will return to him; and we see him trying to convince his sons to move back in with him, to start a family business. In his fix-it business as well in his yearnings, we see him driven by the notion that “something broken might can work again.”
Lisa (played by Camille Oswald) is Rich’s mother, concerned about her son’s well-being, but still compassionate toward her ex-husband. Oswald shows her range by playing this character in the past, in the present, and in Bernie’s memories. Lisa is the most practical of the characters. She tries to be understanding, but she cannot accept that Bernie can only pay $75 of the $300 child support (yet he can keep a steady supply of Johnny Walker scotch). She knows that Bernie’s “money problems” could be solved if he would sell his truck, sell his Chevy, and pawn his Martin guitar.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: Camille Oswald does the best job of appearing cold in the winter scenes, and Samuel Silverstein does the best job of showing changes in physicality between present and past.
Many of the play’s themes are explored through Evan’s dictations and then further illustrated in the ensuing scenes. He tells us about New Hampshire being “The Granite State” with a symbol of a great stone face that one day just crumbled. He asks “what do you do” when a revered symbol crumbles? And then we witness Bernie crumbling before our eyes.
He also muses about the quest for spiritual fulfilment -– whether it be through religion or through creating music. And he touches on the subject of liberty versus submission. (The town in which the play is set is Liberty, NH; and at one point, Bernie states, “I got what I need here in Liberty.”)
The lighting is very effective. Subtle changes signal shifts from past to present and back. Lighting also focuses our attention on the main action while allowing parallel activity to take place elsewhere on stage.
The choices of music -– pre-show as well as in-show – are well thought-out. Bernie loves classic country music, and we are treated to songs by many old masters as we wait for the show to begin.
At the top of the show, we hear a George Jones tune that includes the phrase “a picture of me without you.” In the play we see Bernie dealing with a picture of his world without his wife and without his sons, trying to get them all back in the picture. The song plays again at poignant times. Another excellent musical choice: the most intimate family scene in the play includes father and sons singing “Oh Holy Night.”
Good drama always raises interesting questions.
The set (described above) defines Bernie’s world. Bernie’s house has a rough wooden floor and a stone foundation. At the back of the room is a curtain that partitions it from the rest of the house. We found ourselves wondering whether the curtain was part of Bernie’s world or just a stage convention. What does Bernie hide behind curtains? What do we hide behind curtains in our lives?
Is there significance in the location of the town Liberty in New Hampshire? Our Town’s Grover’s Corner is also in New Hampshire. Is there a significance in the similarity of the names The Will of Bernard Boynton and The House of Bernarda Alba?
Does the word “will” refer to Bernie’s Last Will and Testament? Or does it refer to the ideal world that Bernie tries to “will” into existence? And, once again, just what does Bernie will (or bequeath) to us?
You “will” not want to miss this family drama!
The Keenan Theatre Company presents THE WILL OF BERNARD BOYNTON, a world premiere by Mark Perry, at 8 p.m. April 18, 2 p.m. April 19, and 5 p.m. April 20 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $10 ($5 students with ID).
BOX OFFICE: http://drama.unc.edu/bernardboynton/.
SHOW: http://drama.unc.edu/bernardboynton/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1574798546123080/.
PRESENTER: http://drama.unc.edu/ktc/and https://www.facebook.com/KenanTheatreCompany.
2014-15 SEASON: http://drama.unc.edu/2014-2015-season/.
The Script: https://drama.unc.edu/files/2014/03/TheWillofBernardBoynton_2015.pdf.
Mark Perry (Chapel Hill, NC playwright and co-director): http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=693d6853-c5f4-4c0a-9350-28b3e55e059d (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio). https://www.facebook.com/mark.perry.102361 (Facebook page).
Kathryn Hunter-Williams (Carrboro, NC co-director): http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=6ad10439-2e0c-4017-b4f3-4ca3dae6dc9c (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio) and https://www.facebook.com/kathryn.hunterwilliams (Facebook page).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.