As part of its annual series of readings each year to provide playwrights with feedback on their work, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute hosted the Old Castle Theatre Company’s reading of Elena Hartwell’s play A Strange Disappearance of Bees on Thursday night. The night before the reading, Bees premiered at the Detroit Repertory Theatre in Detroit, Mich., where it will be running for several weeks.
Hartwell’s two-act play, read with minimal stage directions and no break between acts, revolves around the failures and successes of several central characters: Rudd, a beekeeper; her lover, Robert Cashman; Cashman’s estranged son, also named Robert; Lissa, the unofficialy daughter of Cashman and Rudd; and Calvin, Lissa’s boyfriend of three years who is also married to another woman. Nearly the entirety of the play takes place in an unnamed rural town tucked away in some quaint niche of the nation where beekeeping abounds as both a profession and an American pastime.
The play opens with Rudd’s recitation on honeybee culture, one of the many recitations interspersed throughout the characters’ dialogue. “The western honeybee, known by its Latin name as apus molifera,” she says. “The best known of the species is the European honeybee. Our work is that of apiculture. The area where we work is the apiary or bee yard. When we go into the bee yard, we go in as protector, nurturer.” This is how Rudd, along with her 50-year lover Cashman, goes about life.
We soon learn that the couple took in Lissa as a teenager after her parents’ strange “disappearance” and have since raised her as a daughter. Now, a 20-something Lissa and her boyfriend Calvin act as the flirtatious, bantering couple who enliven the drama with youthful dialogue. Like Rudd and Cashman, Calvin manages his own farm, where he also works as a beekeeper. He exchanges honey for baked goods – and kisses – from Lissa, who manages a bakery that she inherited from Cashman.
The play’s pastoral tranquility is soon interrupted by the intrusion of Robert at the bakery. All it takes is one nervous gesture from the young man to make Lissa faint with startled fear; she’s reminded of Cashman, who died only three months ago. Unsurprisingly, we learn that Robert is Cashman’s long-lost son. Unfortunately, he’s just barely missed his father’s untimely death.
In one of many flashback scenes, Cashman exclaims, “Gray hair, gray beard, I’m too gray to be a father!” The lamentation follows an attempt on the aging beekeeper’s part to reach out to the son who’s never seen him. “Everything’s easier when you’re younger.”
“We both know that’s not true,” counters Rudd who, on countless occasions, tries to coerce Cashman, a Vietnam veteran whose son is the product of a passionate love affair between himself and a now-deceased Vietnamese woman, to establish a connection with his son, or at least to write him. Her attempts are to no avail.
“He was my father. He was not my dad,” the orphaned Robert insists on several instances. He corrects Lissa on the issue, and the two soon bond over “how it feels to be an orphan.” But the growth of their connection stops there, at least temporarily. Lissa refuses to tell Robert exactly how his father died. “It was an accident,” she says.
Soon Robert and Lissa develop an almost sibling-like love – a friendship that, although platonic, incites jealousy in Lissa’s lover Calvin, who has yet to divorce his wife for fear of her parents finding out. While Lissa and Robert drink coffee and chat over Robert’s difficulty in convincing himself to read all the unsent letters from his father – the letters Robert explains that he hasn’t “gotten quite ready to read,” just as his father had never quite gotten ready to send – the Lissa-Calvin dynamic grows increasingly sour, and Robert becomes more than just a friend and fellow orphan.
Interspersed with the present action are sporadic flashback narrations and Rudd’s soliloquies on honeybee culture. Through these plot addenda the audience is provided further insight into the work’s characters, especially Cashman, as well as a subtle but strengthening link between beekeeping and life. “It is the tiny honeybee which keeps the whole of agriculture working.” Rudd proclaims.
During what appears to be the play’s most prominent and telling flashback scene, Cashman shows Rudd his military medals – including a Purple Heart – that he won in Vietnam. He tells her about his hopes to show them to his son to impress him, but soon the veteran melts into a frenzy of emotion.
“I’ve walked through jungles full of tripwires, I’ve crawled through tunnels not fit for rats, but I couldn’t cross that goddamn line … not even to see my son,” cries the aging man about how he walked to the county line – the farthest he’s ever gone from his home since returning from the war – and simply sat below the mile marker. Little does he know that his own son makes the same journey in the opposite direction, walking the last several miles into town after his car breaks down.
Meanwhile, Rudd tells of the disappearance of bees from her apiary, how “colony collapse disorder” has arrived in full swing. “Half the colonies of American honeybees have vanished in the last 30 years and nobody knows why,” she explains to the audience. “We will be in big trouble when all the bees are gone.” Rudd remarks that “sometimes people disappear” too while she speaks of the odd vanishing of Lissa’s parents, once Rudd’s neighbors.
And sometimes people appear when you least expect it. Lissa finds herself pregnant, and between her relationships with Calvin and Robert, the father is unknown. Hartwell conveniently keeps this plot twist cloaked in mystery throughout the entirety of the dramatic work and, instead of embellishing the play with climactic action at its close, sums up the scene with subtlety.
“I dreamed last night that I gave birth to a hive of bees. All I could hear was the sound. I found it strangely – calming,” Lissa muses to Rudd.
Crouching down, Rudd presses an ear to Lissa’s stomach, and when her adopted daughter asks what Rudd hears, she exclaims, “Bees!”
Hartwell’s play excelled in its execution of poignant, parallel themes. The playwright managed to imbue her work with messages on the intangibles of life, death, love and happiness, all on the canvass of a realistic, simple plot, fairly uncomplicated characters and entertaining dialogue. The intriguingly odd title couldn’t be more fitting. When the applause set in at the close of the second act, it was certainly more than well deserved.