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Flight of the 'Humble' Bees

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page WE18

AT THE HEART of the mess sits Felix Humble, described in the script, blandly, as "an overweight but not unattractive man of about 35," a stuttering man-child made livid by the dismantling of a few beehives belonging to his recently deceased father. And while "To bee or not to bee" doesn't quite qualify as one of the great dramatic questions, it forms a worthy fulcrum for the Washington premiere of British playwright Charlotte Jones's comedy "Humble Boy."

"As a character in the play puts it, aerodynamically, bumblebees aren't supposed to fly because they're too heavy and their wings are off kilter, but they fly anyway," says Bruce Nelson, the not very overweight, not unattractive man of 39 who plays Felix in Washington Stage Guild's production. The target of Jones's analogy is of course Felix, an aspiring astrophysicist stuck in the purgatory of research fellowship, but also his mother, Flora (Jewell Robinson), the woman who had the hives removed, an action apparently taken mere minutes after her husband's death.

Felix Humble (played by Bruce Nelson), center, talks to George Pye (John Dow), as his mother Flora Humble (Jewell Robinson) looks on in Washington Stage Guild's "Humble Boy." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

"I got rid of the bees on professional advice. They were swarming," says Flora, though in truth it is George Pye (John Dow) who is swarming; it is George with whom she was having an affair right under her entomologist husband's nose, and George for whom she has just endured a nose job despite her advanced age. The jokes emerge from Flora's rather malicious disregard for such things as the urn housing her husband's ashes, but also her contempt for Felix's scientific bent. ("If I had been Marie Curie, I would have used my Bunsen burner to make creme brulee.") Still, a parent lambasting a child can be funny for only so long -- even in the theater -- at which point things become alarming, and stage plays infinitely more interesting.

"He was pretty much adrift from his mother, from his father, from his lover and from his child," says Nelson of the abuse-laden path that has led Felix to seek solace in black holes, chaos theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, string theory -- in short, just about every metaphor for contemporary unease that a playwright might wring out of 20th-century physics. His life's work has become little more than a vehicle for hurling put-downs at Flora -- "That's the problem with black holes. The gravitational attraction is so strong you can't resist." -- while waiting for "Humble's unified theory of everything" to drop from the sky like Newton's apple.

But then, just as suddenly, his father dies, at which point Felix goes from "a man simply lost in his life," as Nelson puts it, to a man "now finding in his father's death a special connection." For Felix, it's a eureka moment of sorts, not unlike "when you point the telescope at the sky. You see clusters of stars that you never knew about."

Speaking of stars: Thanks to his prodigious knack for comic roles, Nelson is a much sought after, and Helen Hayes Award-winning, Washington actor. But with Felix, he is wading into much more troubled territory, he admits, a journey forward that's occasioned no small amount of reflection on what's been left behind.

"In an effort to remain sane, I needed to separate from my family [too] in a way, and I fell into theater," Nelson says of his Columbia childhood and his Army colonel father. "He was the source of a lot of volatility in the house, and that was the last place that I wanted to be." And so, like legions of disaffected and performance-minded youth before him, Nelson sought refuge on the stage. It was, he says, "the perfect way to divorce myself from an up-and-down household," a safe place to bide his time before his own inevitable last-act rapprochement, when he could finally "make connections that were left undone."

Felix's fate is a bit more uncertain, as is the moral we might draw from his, and Nelson's, stories. After all, no one doubts that theoretical physics and theatrical antics -- despite a few obvious differences -- can each be an unhealthy escape from life as we know it, especially when pursued to the exclusion of all else. And yet, who's to say how many lives these hives have saved, how many souls have found temporary sanctuary while time healed their wounds?

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