Several years back, I had a few encounters with a local politician who was aligning himself with schools. I missed the scandal that followed and did not discover until years later (via a newspaper article) that he had been arrested for crimes related to child pornography – the evidence included thousands of photos on his work computer. He had been diagnosed with cancer prior to the scandal, and he died under house arrest not long after. This incident shook me in the way that was maybe similar to how America reacted to the disgrace of Jared Fogel, the former Subway pitchman.
No Home for Bees, which was performed in workshop by 20% Theater Company, features an extraordinary script by Emily Dendinger. This five-actor character study asks poignant questions regarding a topic that is so disturbing that we do not yet have the right vocabulary to discuss it.
The action centers around Suz (Cedar Larson), a 16-year-old whose father Gary (Jeff Duhigg) returned home two weeks earlier following a five-year stint in prison. Suz’s mother Meredith (Marsha Harman) went to great lengths to conceal Gary’s crime from their two daughters, who believe that their father was in jail for tax evasion. In an ideal theater-going world, the audience would not know that Gary was actually convicted of crimes related to child-pornography until mid-way through the first act. Dendinger’s script unfolds this reveal through a series of intriguing clues: Gary’s reluctance to use a computer; Meredith’s recording their younger daughter Bridget’s (Ada Grey) swim meets so Gary does not need to attend in person; Suz emerging from the house in a panic after discovering the truth from an internet search.
While Gary’s actions, past and present, are central to No Home for Bees, the play is not about him. In fact, as a character he doesn’t say much. Before his arrest Gary was a college professor and novelist respected for a highly literary writing style, but in his current situation, he has no words to explain why he acted upon taboo sexual impulses. Even when Suz asks Gary point-blank if he looked at girls that were her age, or if he ever looked at her in an unhealthy way, Gary shrivels emotionally rather than trying to justify his actions.
20% Theater Company works toward a mission of strengthening the voice of women in theater (the name is derived from a statistic that in 2002, only 20% of working theater professionals were women). This play is a good fit based on the strength and complexity of its three female characters. Meredith is highly competent in providing for her family and in preparing a home where Gary can return following his incarceration, but her conviction that Gary will not backslide threatens to destroy all of her hopes. Bridget, being 12 years old and unaware of why her father was in jail, wants to make up for lost time with Gary. Not understanding that her father needs to maintain a low profile in the community, she incorrectly sees her mother as an enabler in Gary’s decision to not leave the house.
Suz, as the main protagonist, is caught in the middle of all these conflicts at a pivotal time in her life. Although she is only 16, she is already going off to an ivy league college at the end of the summer, and she is engaging in her first serious relationship with a 19-year-old named Hal (Raymond Hutchison). She wants to regain trust in her father, but since she is honest in her inability to understand his past destructive behaviors, she does not share her mother’s confidence that Gary is cured. Also, the build-up to Suz and Hal’s decision whether or not to have sex (Hal does not realize that Suz is underage) provides another intriguing view on how people deal with illegal sexual behaviors.
Amidst all of these complex interactions, we also have a hive of bees. Gary, having read books about beekeeping in jail, has focused his energies on starting a new hive in the front yard with Bridget. We learn that a crucial step in the process is introducing a queen enclosed in a cage made of candy sugar, which the bees will eat through to release the queen. At the play’s end, we still don’t know if the hive will accept the queen, but the success of the hive remains one of the only hopes that the entire family can cling to.
Among its many strengths is that No Hive for Bees is the rare family drama that includes no yelling and, in fact, very little that would be considered argument. The characters are soft-spoken and motivated by their desire to understand, not a desire to hurt each other. The compassion that Gary’s receives from the playwright will not please all audiences, but everyone who walks away will admire the three female characters and their struggle to keep a husband and father in their lives despite terrible odds.