If you would like to see a fine young actress, perfectly matched to her role and playing it with sweet and tender honesty, then you should probably look in on "A Taste of Honey," which was revived Thursday night by the Studio Theatre for a run through Feb. 13.
The actress is named Sarah Marshall, but in very short order you will think of her as Jo, that curiously appealing creature, more than a waif, but not yet a woman, who is at the center of Shelagh Delaney's 1958 drama. This is one of those subtle performances that are as telling in stillness as in tumult. On one hand, Marshall seemingly puts it all up there for you to see--the childish delight, the adolescent bewilderment, the silliness and the solemnity of a working girl struggling to survive the lower class. On the other hand, she suggests all manner of secret depths to the character, a fullness beyond the evident fullness.
While there are reasons in this production for your attention to wander and your belief to lapse, Marshall is responsible for none of them. She has the kind of ugly duckling beauty that grows on you and a sense of self-mockery that is enormously engaging. To my mind, she's every bit as persuasive as Amanda Plummer, who acted the role off-Broadway not too long ago to wild acclaim.
"Honey"--a sensation in 1958 partly because its author was a mere 18 years old when she wrote it--has not dated as much as some of the kitchen sink dramas that flooded the British stage in the wake of "Look Back in Anger." The story it tells is simple and, in a squalid way, actually rather poetic. Temporarily abandoned by her slatternly mother, Jo has a brief romance with a black sailor who leaves her pregnant before shipping out. Lonely and adrift, she befriends a homosexual art student who is happy to play surrogate mother for a while, until Jo's real mother comes crashing back into her life.
This slice of life is presented without sentimentality or ire. Like her heroine, Delaney seems to have looked life squarely in the eye, recognized it as something "chaotic" that is "thrust upon us," and concluded that wisdom comes from expecting very little. "You fall down and you stand up and there's nobody going to carry you about," observes Jo's mother, matter-of-factly. Tears and tantrums get you no place in this world. At most, Jo allows an ironic smile to dance on her lips.
The two men in Jo's life are not acted with a finesse equal to Marshall's, but they both are credibly enough portrayed by Vincent Brown, as the sailor, and Richard Hart, as the homosexual. Director Joy Zinoman has orchestrated their respective moments with Jo with warmth and some wit. As a general rule, Zinoman's direction works best in moments of quiet intimacy. When "A Taste of Honey" is strident or boisterous--usually when Jo's boozy mother (Robin Deck) or the mother's sleazy boyfriend of the moment (Stephen Hayes) is around--the production drops several notches.
For one thing, Deck is an overly ample parody of the good-time girl, who stumbled into motherhood once, but hasn't bothered to give it a second thought since. It's a showy performance, perhaps, but not an especially deft one. While the character does have a heart somewhere, pushy and selfish as she may initially appear, Deck doesn't make much of an effort to locate it. And wouldn't a woman, repeatedly referred to in the script as a looker, look less frumpy than Deck? As for Hayes, he is simply inexperienced to the ways of a stage.
I'm not sure there's much point to the Brechtian piano accompaniment, provided by Roy Barber, which announces the arrival of certain characters and the end of some of the scenes. But Russell Metheny has designed a tenement flat that would dampen the cheeriest of souls, which is just as it should be.
The real justification for this revival, however, is Marshall's performance--plaintive and funny and awkward and gallant and just about everything else the circumstances call for.
A TASTE OF HONEY. By Shelagh Delaney. Directed by Joy Zinoman; music arranged by Roy Barber; set, Russell Metheny; costumes, Jane Phelan; lighting, Lewis Folden. With Robin Deck, Sarah Marshall, Stephen Hayes, Vincent Brown, Richard Hart. At the Studio Theatre through Feb. 13.