Charles Dickens grew up in an orphanage, a horrendous period in his childhood that haunted him throughout his life. As a result, many of his books take place in orphanages or portray characters in search of their father, as in Great Expectations.
Unlike Dickens, the playwright Eric Conger was not an orphan but a happy-go-lucky young man infatuated with a young woman. When she became pregnant, he refused to marry her. As a result, her Catholic family cut off all contact with him and forced their daughter to carry out her pregnancy in Canada and then put her child up for adoption through a Catholic agency. Conger, meanwhile, put the affair behind him, studied, and became a successful stage and TV actor, as well as a translator of French plays.
Thirty years later, Conger received a call from a young woman who expressed her joy at finding her birth mother and now her biological father. Conger, already married with children, learned that he had also fathered a daughter. Just as Dickens turned the events of his youth into novels, so Conger transformed his daughter’s search into a play.
To respect his daughter’s privacy, Conger wrote a play not about her, but about Bill, a 49-year-old adopted male (played movingly by Jeff Coon) who, upon the death of his adopted mother, searches for his birth parents— an arduous journey of self-discovery.
Nun as Queen of Hearts
Conger set out to construct a simple “quest” play, in which the protagonist leaves home in search of himself, meets demons and prophets along the way, and finally faces the unknown — in this case, his mother.
The story of the search makes the adopted son a modern Sisyphus who, whenever he thinks he has reached his goal, sees the adoption stone roll down into an abyss.
While searching — initially against the will of his wife (the beautiful and energetic Alicia Roper) — Bill encounters many different characters, becoming a contemporary Everyman.
After a confrontation with an obnoxious former student (played with great gusto by Elena Bossler), Bill encounters a prophetic, down-on-his-luck jazz man who morphs into a modern clerk, and then into a metrosexual genealogy researcher (played brilliantly by the multifaceted Phillip Brown).
The road to discovery takes Bill into a religious world, where he meets a slim, Catholic nun in sundown mode (played with great sincerity by Alicia Roper). He then encounters a woman who holds all the strings like one of the fates in Greek mythology: a stern old nun (played with tenacious conviction by Carla Belver) who, like a religious Queen of Hearts, chops off all attempts to let the adopted son discover the identity of his biological parents.
‘I could be Jewish’
Director David Stradley, artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, presented this riveting play in such an intimate way that the raw emotion surfaces through facial muscles contracting, spit flying, and tears glistening in the eyes of the characters. Conger’s capacity to make us laugh and cry simultaneously while following this adopted Everyman on a quest for his identity makes this play a remarkable experience.
In one scene, Bill, raised as an Irish American, is so desperate to discover his real identity that he speculates he might not be Irish: “I could be Jewish for all I know. Wouldn’t that be fun? ‘Cousin Seamus. Sit. Have some babka.’”
In one of the final scenes, the senior nun and the desperate searcher cool off, shivering in the night. She falls asleep on the porch, while Bill disappears, leaving us sitting in semi-darkness, soothed by ethereal sounds (composed by Elizabeth Atkinson) filling the air.
During this long stretch of meditation in the dark, the theatre shifted from a pleasant temperature to an ice cold one, resembling the coldness that had settled over the two main characters.
At the reception afterwards, when I remarked how impressed I was by the perfect timing of the room temperature dropping dramatically, Carla Belver replied, “Oh, that? That was a pure coincidence!”
I hope the artistic director will talk to the technician in charge of the air-conditioning at the Walnut and make sure that it will be turned on full-blast exactly during that powerful scene and turned off before the play’s warmhearted and harmonious musical climax.
What, When, Where
Beautiful Boy. By Eric Conger; David Stradley directed. Through March 9, 2014 at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/beautiful-boy.php.