Youth may or may not be wasted on the young, but without a doubt their experiences are of a more Technicolor hue (or Dolby sound, or what have you) than their elders'. Nothing is the same as a first love, or a first time being utterly transported by music. Bel Canto at Pillsbury House succeeds in locating those vivid days when the world is a playground--albeit one with plenty of opportunities for injury. The production's shortcomings in narrative momentum are counterbalanced by Stephen DiMenna's thoughtful direction and the cast's instinct for hitting the quiet notes that evoke familial and romantic love in the spring of one's life.
Playwright Daniel Alexander Jones gives us Benjamin (Will Sturdivant), a transplant to Springfield, Massachusetts, from Berkeley in 1978. He lives with his single mom, Bessie (Sonja Parks, diminutive but imposing, and more than plausible in a role for which she's chronologically underqualified); the two are waiting for Benji's dad to return home from Canada, where he's been living underground since dodging the draft (Jimmy Carter has just extended amnesty to conscientious objectors). Dad should have showed up by now, and with every day that passes it's clearer that he has abandoned the family. Matters are also complicated when Benji gets into a scrape at school with locker-room homophobes and ends up with a broken wrist--as well as a reciprocated crush on aesthete classmate Terence (William Grier).
All of which sounds pretty straightforward, except that events are played out on Seitu Jones's set: painted stark white, with angular lines and various blocks and benches. It's a space in which objects are reduced to Platonic bodies. The set gives the cast a lot of imaginative freedom, and Mike Wangen's lighting design makes good use of the theater's intimacy and the audience's proximity to the stage, carving the theatrical space into blocks and keeping the action moving from one abstract location to the next.
Sturdivant gives a gutsy performance of intense vulnerability, his expression constantly shifting with teenage uncertainty and innocent theatricality. Serendipitously, Benji meets a mysterious former opera singer named Barbara Scarlatti (Faye M. Price), who claims to hear greatness in his voice. She offers him vocal lessons in exchange for painting the interior of her house. Price plays Scarlatti with limping faded grandeur, and with an accent that ranges from Dixie to the Seven Hills of Rome in a single phrase. Her attitude toward Benji is one of jaded condescension. He doesn't mind--he's primed to explode with discovery, in this case when Scarlatti turns him on to new terrain (until then he's been a Hendrix man).
Bel Canto depicts the moment when a young person enters into a romance with life itself. Sometimes it's not in as much of a hurry to get where it's going as its subject--a scene in which Benji and Bessie fight about Benji's father's return goes on too long (despite the great chemistry between Sturdivant and Parks all evening). Benji and Terence's courtship fails to sufficiently ignite when Grier sticks too closely to a reserved, nerdy template for his character. Though the choice is effective in the early going, his romance with Benji ought to engender a more visible change, which would give the whole production added dynamism.
Crucially, the play tackles Benji's sexuality and interracial parentage as aspects of his life and not as dramatic subjects in themselves (Sturdivant's look of utter astonishment when the school nurse calls him a "sepia James Dean" is priceless). The symbolic appearance of boundary-busting African American opera singer Marian Anderson (Carla Alcorn, in fine voice and lit in certain moments like a piece of elegant statuary) lends a mystic touch. She's also there for an ending that is stunning both in its visual beauty and in Sturdivant's unexpected and very moving moment of final understanding with his father. While Bel Canto sacrifices a lot of tension that might have come from a tauter structure, the cast at Pillsbury House extracts from it a great deal of warmth and a believable sense of teenage passion. For those who have moved on to other pleasures, it offers a feeling approaching wistfulness.