Teenage Jo comes of age once again in A Taste Of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking slice of mid-20th-century Manchester life made must-see at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre by its native Mancunian star’s haunting lead performance.
Mother-daughter relationships weren’t commonly referred to as dysfunctional or codependent when a then nineteen-year-old Delaney’s freshman play made its West End debut in back 1958, but how else to describe the ties that bind Jo (Kestrel Leah) to her “semi-whore” single mother Helen (Sarah Underwood Saviano)?
After a childhood spent taking second place to the men in Mum’s life, it’s no wonder that when blowsy Helen takes up with much younger car salesman Peter (Eric Hunicutt), Jo is quick to find comfort of her own with Jimmie (Gerard Joseph), a handsome black sailor about to ship off for six months at sea.
Ship off her Navy man does, leaving Jo behind with promises to return and (unbeknownst to him) a little something to remember him by as she sets up housekeeping with a gay best friend (Leland Montgomery as Geof) to bring home the bacon (in addition to frying it and cleaning up afterwards).
Interracial relationships and unapologetically gay characters were hardly the stuff of British theater back when Delaney wrote A Taste Of Honey in response to a closeted Terence Rattigan’s more classically constructed, play-it-safer dramas. (I’m guessing, for instance, that Rattigan’s characters didn’t speak in Delaney’s rough regional vernacular, toss out casual audience asides, or behave as un-genteelly as they do in Jo and Helen’s working-class world.)
As for whether A Taste Of Honey’s lack of a classic beginning, middle, and end was a deliberate response to Rattigan and his contemporaries’ “well-made plays” or simply the product of inexperience, the result remains as unconventionally effective in 2016 as it was nearly sixty years ago, particularly as directed with copious ingenuity and flair by Kim Rubinstein.
Jazz underscoring by live musicians Armando Wood on double bass, Joseph on drums, and Saviano on an instrument I’ll let her surprise you with, along with songstress Leah’s Doris Day cover are just two of Rubinstein’s imaginative choices.
Another is having scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis suggest rather than literally depict Jo and Helen’s “comfortless flat,” a design made even more effective by Katelan Braymer’s striking lighting and music director Saviano’s moody original underscoring.
Supporting performances could not be more richly rendered than they are on the Odyssey stage, beginning with Saviano’s Helen, bruised but not yet defeated, hard-edged but not entirely hard-hearted.
Joseph’s Jimmie is so sweet, caring, and sincere, it’s no wonder Jo falls hard; Hunicutt manages to have us almost liking Peter, or at least seeing how Helen could; and Montgomery gives us a heartbreakingly appealing wounded bird of a Geof.
Still, if there’s any play dependant on a single lead performance, A Taste Of Honey is that play, and Rubinstein and the Odyssey have lucked out big time in the instantly likeable, stunningly lovely, and edgily real Kestrel, the Cal Arts M.A. grad taking the role that made Rita Tushingham a 1960s movie star and making it her unforgettable own.
Denise Blasor’s costumes reflect era, setting, and characters to perfection. Saviano and Carlos Torres’s sound design is top-notch, too, as for the most part is Andrea Ordinov Fuller’s dialect coaching of the production’s non-British cast members.
A Taste Of Honey is produced by Beth Hogan. Eden Mullins is stage manager. Rosie Byrne and Tracey Silver are assistant directors.
With Tony Richardson’s 1961 film adaptation having recenlty made its long-awaited American DVD debut and an off-Broadway revival having opened only days before the Odyssey’s, A Taste Of Honey is most definitely on a roll in 2016.
Delaney’s characters’ “tastes of honey” may be brief, but as the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s “dead sound” (Mancuian for “smashing”) revival makes abundantly clear, her career-defining debut is going stronger than ever.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
November 3, 2016
Photos: Enci Box