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Theatre in Review: The Hummingbird's Tour (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Susan Pellegrino, Anne O'Sullivan, Ray Baker, Lynda Gravátt. Photo: C.D. Wilson

If someone could accurately predict the exact date of your death, would you to want to know it? This extremely silly question is considered in lackadaisical fashion in The Hummingbird's Tour. Playwright Margaret Dulaney has imagined a pair of sixtysomething siblings living with their elderly nanny in a house in Northern California, circa 1970. Everyone is mildly eccentric. Norton, a retired academic, spends most of time on a perch next to his extremely tall bookshelves, reviewing his past reading. Mattie volunteers at the local rest home; she has prepared a bunny costume for Easter and forgetfully wanders around with her rabbit ears affixed to her head. Constance, who once took care of them, is now their permanent guest, alternating between long naps and bouts of cracking wise. She also hears the voices of dead people.

Into their relative tranquility comes Lucy, the eldest sibling, a kind of spiritual day tripper buzzing about the latest religious fad -- even if she isn't too clear on the details. For example, Lucy has just returned from an ashram, bubbling with excitement about Buddhism. However, Norton points out, ashrams are established for the practice of Hinduism. "Oh, is that what that was," muses Lucy.

Lucy has brought with her Peter, a young man who, she insists, is blessed with uncanny powers. For example, just by looking at someone, he can divine his or her death date. He predicts that Constance will die two weeks hence, on Easter Sunday. (Constance thinks he has merely gotten her birthday wrong.) He also leaves three sealed envelopes, each containing the farewell date for one of the siblings. Then he disappears, mysteriously and without warning.

Dulaney seems to be after a kind of metaphysical boulevard comedy, an idea that hasn't had many takers since the likes of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. She notes how each of the siblings deals with the existence of the envelopes: Norton, a total skeptic; Mattie, a staunch and entirely conventional Episcopalian; and Lucy, who, Norton notes, has been on "the hummingbird's tour" of the world's religions, visiting them all briefly without ever alighting anywhere. As it happens, each of them has a dilemma that must be solved. Norton, mourning his late wife, has become a bit of a recluse. Lucy has a health problem that she is remarkably ambivalent about having treated. And Mattie must come to terms with the fact that her life has passed without a great passion.

None of this stirs up much in the way of drama; instead, everyone passes the time making wry little jokes that are often deficient in wit and insight. "Change is for midlife. Growth is for teenagers," grumbles Norton, who doesn't want his life disturbed. When Mattie is accused of breaking open the envelopes, Norton backs up his accusation, saying, "You're the one who reads the ends of novels before you're finished." Norton, fed up with Lucy, says, "You couldn't brush your teeth in the morning if some damned pop psychologist hadn't told you how to hold the brush." Norton's irritation is understandable, since Lucy has advanced the entirely specious argument that he might be happy to learn that the end is nigh, because it might lead to a heavenly reunion with his late wife. Since Norton is an agnostic and Lucy believes in reincarnation, it's hard to fathom what in the world she means.

The Hummingbird's Tour continues in this fashion until the double-twist ending, in which Dulaney tries to have things every which way. The lack of urgency in her text and in John Augustine's direction does little to engage us in the characters' very mild problems, but at least the people on stage are pleasant. Ray Baker is a most likable curmudgeon as Norton, especially when quite reasonably explaining that his "hiding place" is nothing of the kind, since it exists in plain view. With her Woody Woodpecker tuft of red hair and manic-pixie persona, Anne O'Sullivan's Lucy is most convincing as a kind of theological Auntie Mame. Susan Pellegrino captures Mattie's ugly-duckling soul without sentimentalizing her. The role of Constance is little more than a series of gag lines -- reacting to the doorbell, she mutters, "Constance hasn't answered a door since the fifties" -- but Lynda Gravátt gets full value from them.

The production is equally attractive. Sheryl Liu's living room set, with its towering bookshelves, is a nice place to spend a couple of hours, especially as warmly lit by Christopher Weston. Christopher Leidenfrost's costumes take note of the period, without overdoing it -- with the exception of the outfit that Lucy wears to attend church with Mattie, an arrangement of sunglasses, shawl, turban, and fan that makes her look rather like Norma Desmond, waiting for her closeup. (Brian Strachan is credited with original costume design; I have no idea what that means in this context.) Matt Balitsaris' sound design makes use of a playlist of period tunes, including "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and a couple of hits from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass -- strange choices for a play where all the characters carry AARP cards.

The best thing you say about The Hummingbird's Tour is that it is cheerful as it searches, in meandering fashion, for a solution to its central non-problem. As it happens, the playwright concludes that we should live for the moment and not worry about the future. Then again, you may have already known that. -- David Barbour


(29 October 2015)

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