The names of two actors were interchanged in a review of "A Taste of Honey" at Olney Theatre in Style yesterday. Leland Orser plays Geoffrey, the art student; T. Dylan James has the part of Peter. (Published 9/1/87)

"A Taste of Honey" may be the best play ever written by an 18-year-old -- which Shelagh Delaney was when she first put pen to paper, partially out of disgust with the well-bred fare that dominated the postwar English theater.

She was a theater usher in Lancaster at the time -- or so the story goes -- and had just seen a slick piece of fluff by Terence Rattigan, "Variations on a Theme." Finding it irrelevant to her lower-class experience and vowing she could do better, she went home and wrote "A Taste of Honey."

The act of creation is, of course, far more complicated than such an anecdotal explanation suggests. But the fact remains, Delaney turned out a remarkable first work -- rebellious, bittersweet and wise beyond its author's young years.

Nearly three decades after its triumphant London premiere, "A Taste of Honey" remains absorbing drama. Its revolutionary impact has necessarily dulled with time, but at Olney Theatre, which is presenting the play in a generally commendable production through Sept. 20, other qualities are seeping through. There is a surprising amount of love in this unsentimental account of a Lancaster waif and her boozy mother, who abandons her repeatedly for the first "fancy man" on the sooty horizon.

The love was there all along. We just weren't disposed to seeing it. Britain's "angry young men" were hitting us with gritty chronicles of lower-class squalor, written in the language of the slums, and Delaney seemed to be falling right in with them. Here was a mother who, between gulps of gin, could look her daughter squarely in the eye and snarl, "I should have gotten rid of you before you were born." For all her kinship with a rag doll coming apart, the daughter could still respond in kind: "I wish you had done. You did with plenty of others, I know."

Left to her own devices in a tenement with "a lovely view of the gasworks," Jo, the daughter, surrendered her virginity to a black sailor who then sailed blithely away, leaving her pregnant with more than dreams. A sweet but spineless homosexual art student moved in, tended her like a big sister and gave her a modicum of self-respect. But in the end, the mother, jilted once again, came careening back, presumably to reclaim her maternal privileges but mostly just to have a roof over her head.

This was strong stuff. But if Delaney opened a door, hundreds of playwrights have since barreled through it. What could then be construed as shocking is likely to set few eyelids fluttering these days. As a result, we're freer to focus on the compassion Delaney lavished on her characters, on their impulse to reach out even as they are dressing one another down with vituperation.

As James D. Waring has directed it at Olney, "A Taste of Honey" is very much about the deep-seated needs of warring people for one another. They are perhaps too inured by a life of desolation and poverty to come out and say so. But in the brief silence of regret that follows a stinging insult, in the panic that transmutes itself into bravado, you can sense helplessness calling out for solace.

The production is frequently bathed in half-light, which filters through the grimy windows and takes the edge off the harshness of broken furniture and mildewed wallpaper. In that respite from reality's glare, combative creatures, momentarily alone with themselves, find their souls aching.

That is certainly the hallmark of the affecting performance by Brigid Cleary, a persuasive actress who has long scored in comic vignettes, but as Jo gives full proof of her range. What is notable is not that Cleary is petulant, irritating, feisty and endearing by turns, but that she can be irritating and endearing at one and the same instant. She is never so in need of comfort as when she is aggressively asserting her self-sufficiency. A runny nose induces in her a rampage of self-pity, but she can joyfully accept a dime-store ring from her black lover, all the while knowing her dreams are destined to evaporate.

"I'll probably never see you again. I know it. I just know it," she says to him. "... Stay with me now, it's enough." The double strain of lucidity and wishful thinking that Cleary brings to the line is heartrending.

Barbara Andres, as the slatternly mother, has found another way to reveal the tender underside of a tough cookie. She speaks first and then thinks afterward. A handsome woman, Andres has allowed herself to be boldly tarted up. The makeup is too thick, while the fancy wardrobe costumer Mary Lenning has given her is just this side of cheap and a size too small. She is a silly, reckless, puffy woman, racing to stay ahead of the clock.

But it is that very desperation, Andres understands, that propels the mother to snap and wound. First and foremost, she is fighting time, before time inflicts its irreparable ravages. "Why can't you learn from my mistakes? It takes you half your life to learn from your own," she rails at Jo. In that bitter wisdom, there is an oblique glitter of love. The impatience is a kind of caring.

As the homosexual art student, T. Dylan James looks something like a Pre-Raphaelite angel -- pale, with a fine nose and a tumble of golden curls, all of which lends a further air of fragility to the role. Even the actor's self-consciousness tends to work for him in this case.

However, neither Vergil Smith, as the magical sailor boy, nor Leland Orser, as the mother's drunken paramour of the moment, contributes much to the production. Fortunately, their appearances are minor and they do no lasting damage to the truth of Delaney's play. For there is abiding dramatic truth here -- more than we may have initially suspected.

"It's your life. Ruin it your own way," bellows the mother at her daughter, who gives every indication of heeding the advice. Once, we were tempted to accept the line at face value and see in "A Taste of Honey" an unvarnished account of lower-class hopelessness. What the play reveals in its middle age is how hard these sorry creatures are really struggling to keep their collapsing lives together.

A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney. Directed by James D. Waring. Sets and lighting by Waring. Costumes, Mary Lenning. Electronic score by Emerson Meyers. With Barbara Andres, Brigid Cleary, T. Dylan James, Leland Orser, Vergil Smith. At Olney Theatre through Sept. 20.