Reviewed by Hen Zannini
The Arctic Playhouse’s current production is “Butterflies are Free.” Written by Leonard Gershe, the play is a dramedy about Don, a blind man, who moves into his own apartment in Manhattan against the wishes of his overprotective and overbearing mother, and befriends Jill, the freethinking young woman next door. With the help of Jill, Don works to break free of his mother to prove that he can make it on his own. Gershe was inspired to write “Butterflies Are Free” after he heard the story of Harold Krents, a Harvard educated lawyer who happened to be blind.
Here is an interesting piece of trivia. The title was inspired by a passage in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House: “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”
“Butterflies Are Free” opened on Broadway play in October 1969 and was an immediate hit. Directed by Milton Katselas, the play starred Keir Dullea as Don, Blythe Danner as Jill, and Eileen Heckart as Don’s mother. The production ran for 1,128 performances and was nominated for three Tony awards, one of which Blythe Danner won for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
The film version of the play (set in San Francisco), directed by Milton Katselas, opened in the summer of 1972 and was a commercial and box office success. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress, which Eileen Heckart won for her performance of the mother. The film also starred Goldie Hawn as Jill and Edward Albert as Don. It was adapted for the screen by Leonard Gershe, produced by M.J. Frankovich, and released by Columbia pictures.
Director Tony Annicone blends both comedy and drama with a sensitive touch in directing this story of an intelligent young blind man struggling to establish his independence in the world. Tony has cast all four roles perfectly. His ability to recognize and capture unique nuances from each character is highly commendable, as well as his ability to creatively and cleverly block them in Dan’s tiny apartment. He is the stimulus that brings this funny and touching script to life.
Christian O’Brien plays Don Baker, the most challenging role, with pure aplomb. It is no easy task for an actor with great eyesight to play a person who is totally blind, but Christian convincingly does so with his pure and compelling acting ability. He has mastered this skill so completely, that I actually forgot he really can see. Christian’s wide range and depth as an actor is evidenced throughout the play as he runs the full gamut of emotions, from happy to sad, confident to unsure, and everything in between. One of his most powerful scenes is when he is left alone after being provoked and becomes enraged, smashing into furniture and losing his way. The audience became completely silent, and my own eyes filled with tears at the raw despair that Christian displays. On the flip side, his comedic ability is also topnotch. He cleverly and swiftly delivers many quips, including several about his blindness, that leave you guiltily chuckling. Christian’s capability to change demeanors is especially demonstrated during his conversations with his mother. After their final talk, Don Baker is finally left to master his own destiny, be it becoming a successful guitarist or working in technology.
Jill Tanner, the young lady that steals Don’s heart, is played by charismatic Sarah Reed. Sarah is on the stage through much of the show, which was fine by me, as well as the rest of the audience! From her first bubbly entrance to the end of the show, she is a joy to behold. Although she appears to be ditzy, she’s actually an intelligent woman. Sarah wholly embraces Jill’s effervescence and vivaciousness, which begins as soon as she walks onto the stage. She is a bundle of innocent energy that never stops, sort of like the Energizer Bunny! Her facial expressions are priceless and display her emotional versatility, as does her flawless acting. Sarah emits complete audaciousness, yet she is totally lovable. One of my favorite lines is, “This is the greatest bed I’ve every seen in my life. And I’ve seen a lot of beds!” Her ongoing banter with the other characters grabs you—I was always sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what was going to come out of her mouth next! I found myself enjoying her whirlwind romance as much as she did. I predict this talented and dynamic actress is going places.
Denise Izzi, who is no stranger to the stage, plays Don’s mother, Mrs. Baker. Her appearance says it all. She enters the stage with her head held high, donning pearls, white gloves, and the shiniest patent leather shoes I’ve ever seen; and her hair is pulled up just as tight as she is. Denise is brilliant in this role. She may be short in physical stature, but she is amazingly tall in attitude. You can just feel her initial dripping disdain for Jill and the uncomfortable strain of her relationship with her son. When Jill breaks through Mrs. Baker’s hard exterior, Denise finally exposes her pent-up pain, her eyes filling with tears and her jaw quivering. It is one of the most gripping moments in the play.
Ralph Austin, a Broadway character, is played by Chris Pelletier. And character is certainly the key word here. He is as obnoxious as his glittery vest. Chris plays cocky, nervy, and presumptuous so well that I wonder if he’s like that in real life! He sent shivers down my spine—and not the pleasant kind. His portrayal of an addict writhing on the floor is priceless and not to be missed.
Stage Manager John Robert Faiola keeps the lights and sound running throughout the evening. My compliments to those who created the set (a low-rent flat), costumes, and hairstyles. All were totally on point and had me reminiscing of my younger days. Kudos to the cast, crew, and producers on a fabulous production!
So be sure to catch the emotional yet funny “Butterflies Are Free” at The Arctic Playhouse, a charming community theatre. You won’t be disappointed. Oh! There’s an added bonus! The Arctic Playhouse offers FREE popcorn, homemade cookies, and coffee all night long! Plus there’s a cash bar serving soda, water, and alcohol, all at very reasonable prices.
BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE – JUNE 10, 16, 17, 22, 23, and 24 at 8 pm; June 18 at 2 pm
The Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington Street, West Warwick, RI; 401-573-3443
Tickets: $13 online (www.thearcticplayhouse.com); $18 at the door