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Women on the Verge

Two plays explore the unpredictable, perilous roads to an adult life

Elizabeth Teeter and Brett Gray in Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, and Lynn Nottage’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, directed by Sam Gold, at the Atlantic Theater Company through July 21.
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It’s a horrible thing to have to choose between morality and survival. In the 1948 play “The Mountains Look Different,” now getting a sensitive and engrossing American premiere at the Mint Theater, that is the choice that confronted Bairbre, a young Irish girl who moved to London and after many vain attempts found that the only profession could pursue was the world’s oldest. When she meets the sweet, naïve young man Tom Grealish as she loiters outside a pub, ironically called the Garden of Eden, she thinks she may have found a way out. She’ll marry him and move to his farm in a remote part of Ireland and start a new life, and so they do. Little did Bairbre think, as she planned to put her old life behind her, that when she met Tom’s father, Martin, she would encounter a formal client. Their fleeting tryst was all in a day’s work for Bairbre, but for the newly widowed Martin, it set off an enduring crisis of conscience, one that he can’t get past and which brands Bairbre as an unsuitable wife for his son. The ensuing power struggle between the two is the central conflict of the play, one that inevitably leads to destructive revelations and tragedy for virtually everyone.

Micheál mac Liammóir’s play is a gift to actors. (Mac Liammóir himself was one before turning to playwriting.) The characters are believable and complex, with many levels and shadings. Under the direction of Aidan Redmond, the story unfolds slowly and ominously, the growing tension leading to a showdown between Bairbre and Martin in the second act. It’s a fascinating and fair fight, as mac Liammóir is sympathetic to both of the characters. It’s also very human and personal, never delving into Shavian polemics about morality. These are real people.

Brenda Meaney as Bairbre and Con Horgan as Martin give rich, electric performances that leave no question as to what is at stake for each of them. Jesse Pennington as Tom is both innocent and eager to be a good husband. He’s even patient when after three days of marriage, he has yet to share a bed with Bairbre. Pennington is heartbreaking as he realizes who Bairbre really is and the desperate lengths to which she’s gone yet still tries to hold onto her.

The struggle to escape one’s past and reinvent oneself is a classic theme of literature. From Gilgamesh to Gatsby, the hope and quest for rebirth is a story we never tire of. When it’s told so well by mac Liammóir and the Mint, it’s easy to see why.

“The Secret Life of Bees,” now getting a premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is a beautiful mess. It’s beautiful primary thanks to Duncan Sheik’s wonderful score that synthesizes gospel, country, R&B, and more and yet finds a coherent and original voice. Especially when performed by such wonderful talents as LaChanze, Saycon Sengbloh, and Eisa Davis, it’s one of the most exciting original scores of recent years, certainly Sheik’s best since “Spring Awakening.” (I was quite a fan of his “American Psycho” score, too.) The whole company is outstanding, and the ensemble singing under the direction of Jason Hart is consistently powerful and moving. Though Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics tend toward the simplistic, they’re poetic and fit the characters.

It’s a mess because of the book. In attempting to bring Sue Monk Kidd’s novel down to a manageable size, Lynn Nottage has made a noble effort to fit all of the story into the musical. What may be expansive and atmospheric on the page bogs down in too much exposition, especially in the first act.

The story is set in a fictional Southern town just after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Lily, a young white girl still grieving the loss of her mother for which she feels responsible, escapes her violent and racist father with her black housekeeper Rosaleen, who has been attacked by white men as she tries to go register to vote. With only the label from a honey jar left by Lily’s mother and the name of her home town, Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen set out to find where that leads them. They are taken in by the Boatwright sisters, who keep bees and sell honey. From there, the story gest confused as we learn about Lily’s mother and get caught up in another racist incident, this time involving Lily and Zachary — a young African-American man who has grown up with the love and support of the Boatwrights — as they go into town and Zachary is arrested on trumped up charges because he’s with a white girl. There’s also a wooden statue of Mary that gets bathed in honey, a ritualistic veneration of same, and subplots about the sisters. As a result, the book jumps from plot point to plot point and never achieves the emotional impact the story deserves. Judicious trimming and focusing the story more on Lily’s journey and healing would help the show immeasurably. And we never really do learn what the secret life of bees is. It must be a metaphor, but with no illumination it sounds like an empty catch phrase.

Confusing as the story is, the show is never boring, thanks to the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Elizabeth Teeter is compelling as Lily, and Brett Gray as Zachary has a powerful and versatile voice and dynamic star quality. Sam Gold’s staging on a largely bare platform is simple and straightforward, and, while he gets some moving moments from his actors, the fragmented nature of the books makes it difficult for the show to find a coherent voice.

This is a show with exceptional potential. As the producer says in “Merrily We Roll Along,” “It isn’t every day you hear a score this strong.” With that as a starting point and with some work, this show could really take wing.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES | Atlantic Theater Company at Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. | Through Jul. 21: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m. | $106.50-$126.50 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 15 mins, with intermission

THE MOUNTAINS LOOK DIFFERENT | The Mint Theater Company at Theatre Row | 410 W. 42nd St. | Jul. 12 & 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Jul 13 & 14 at 2 p.m. | $65 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., with intermission

Updated 9:45 pm, July 11, 2019
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