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By John Quinn
The Detroit Repertory Theatre opens its 53rd season with the world premiere of Elena Hartwell's A Strange Disappearance of Bees, an engaging tale about the complexities of romance. For good measure, there are a whole lot of factoids about apiculture ("bee management" to the uninitiated). If science had been presented in college with the sweet dab of honey this play supplies, I'd have been a doctor instead of a critic.
While Lissa (Kelly Komlen) is an orphan, she had the good fortune to have a family of sorts in the persons of Robert Cashman and "Rud" the Beekeeper. Cashman has recently passed on, leaving his rural bakery to Lissa. No shrinking violet, Lissa has been carrying on a three-year affair with local farmer Callum (Stephen Blackwell) who, unfortunately, is already married. The bucolic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of tech tycoon Robert (Scott V. Norman), who is seeking the father he never knew. He's too late – Cashman was his father. An uneasy triangle soon develops.
Through a series of honey-colored flashbacks, we meet the younger Cashman and Rud, lovers for some 50 years. We find an enduring trust and loyalty that carried through – and beyond – death. Though Cashman is gone, his personality remains in those he loved.
Playwright Elena Hartwell shows a firm understanding of the human condition, which shows in her compelling drama. Her characters are real because their emotional interplay rings so true. Flashback can be a tough plot device, but a remarkable job of direction by Hank Bennett, coupled with Thomas Schraeder's lighting design, allows us to flit – well, like a bee – back and forth in time. Very little dialogue is needed to orient us in the scene.
While the actors are uniformly on top of their game, special note must be made of the "older folks" in the play. Dexter T. Mays as Cashman and Milfordean Luster as Rud are audience favorites; their gentle interplay is both touching and bittersweet.
But what about the bees? If you follow the news, you know that the honeybee population in North America has suffered a disastrous decline in just the last few years. "Colony Collapse Disorder" has been identified as being caused by a one-two punch of fungus and virus. Entomologists are still at work on a cure. We take away from A Strange Disappearance of Bees that every loss is a potential new beginning.
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson St., Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 26, plus New Year's Eve. Tickets: $17–$20; $70 New Year's Eve. For information: 313-868-1347 or www.detroitreptheatre.com.
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