Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Love, myth, murder, and the sticky sweet poison elixir of "Mad Honey" combined for a turbulent performance this past Thursday night at Bloomington Playwrights Project. Set in New Hope, Pennsylvania, over a period of 17 years, playwright Amy Hartman's intense script tells an incredibly complex tale of twins separated at birth by a man who is in love with their mother, but who is not the children's father. Stewart and Penny, the children, are sent by Postman Joe Tibits to live with two families in the community. Postman Joe convinces Willow, the children's mother, to cut her hair and work as a hired hand named Billy for the family raising her daughter Penny.
Yes, it is a bit confusing and can be difficult to follow, but over time as more and more facts are revealed, everything makes sense. In this rich drama about love and honesty, who and how are less important than why. And as Penny and Stewart grow up and begin to live their lives oblivious to their true ancestry, Postman Joe's precarious web of deceit begins to unravel with tragic consequences.
In the play's beautifully staged opening scene, Joe and Willow stand over the body of her dead father. We learn that Percy, the dead man, was a sin-eater-- a revered figure who is believed to literally swallow the sins of the recently departed, absolving them of their sins before their soul can move on. Willow presses Joe to do the same for her father. Joe agrees, and assumes the collective sins of the father, the townspeople, and all of their ancestors.
While Amy Hartman's script is complex and moving, and John Maness' direction is quite skillful, perhaps the most amazing part of this production is Chris Aruffo's portrayal of Postman Joe Tibits.
Because the role was initially cast with another actor, who had to leave the production due to a death in the family, Aruffo opened in the role last weekend with virtually no rehearsal. Though he performs with script in hand, his characterization and intensity are quite affecting, and the thick Irish brogue required for the role is amazingly consistent.
In other roles, Anna Fiore is very moving as Billy, the gender-bending mother and hired hand at the eye of the storm. Though a bit rushed at times, Freddie Rodriguez plays the earnest but conflicted Stewart to good effect. And Sam Paul's portrayal of Willow exhibits a wonderful range of emotions.
Lee Burckes' setting for "Mad Honey" is a haunting, suggestive landscape that beautifully mirrors the fragility of the lives on stage. Whitewashed, weathered windowpanes look out onto unrevealing black drapes, further restricting the emotional space of the characters.
In the end, Bloomington Playwrights Project's production of "Mad Honey" is a strong production of a tightly-woven emotional drama. Whether you come for the intrigue of a family conflict, the curiosity of sin eating, or just for a thought-provoking night at the theater, "Mad Honey" will not disappoint you.