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BWW Review: A TASTE OF HONEY Breaks the Fourth Wall into Your Consciousness

British playwright Shelagh Delaney was a precocious young woman with a keen eye for detail and a gift for naturalistic dialogue. She reached the height of her literary fame at 19 with the premiere of her play A TASTE OF HONEY which she wrote in just two weeks. Much to her dismay, Delaney was often called "an angry young woman" since she grew up in working class Salford, a gritty industrial neighbor of Manchester. And much of that environment is reflected in her Tony Award winning play which tells the story of Jo, a teenage girl abandoned in a working class town by her slatternly mother and her lover, a gentle black sailor who leaves her pregnant when he returns to sea. But it is another outcast, a homosexual man, who cares for her and provides the only true solace Jo has ever known, though he, too, is destined to leave.

The play was controversial for its harsh and morally complex depiction of life in a place much like Delaney's hometown where everyday people tell you exactly where they are coming from, both very alive in experiencing their lives from day-to-day and cynical in their beliefs. And in 1950s Britain, to be a single mother was considered to be a disgrace for the woman's entire family, and very often ostracized by them. And like Jo, single mothers with mixed-race children were seen as abnormal, undesirable and inevitably doomed, stemming from the fact that relationships between white women and black men were seen as deviant and socially dangerous. And of course, abortion was illegal, a practice even Jo condemns in the same breath she says she plans "to drown the baby when it is born."

The choices each character faces are not easy ones. In fact, when Helen, Jo's mother, returns to take care of her daughter just before the birth of her child, when she finds out her grandchild may be black, her response is, "What else can you do to me?" before she runs off to the pub to get drunk. And on her way out, she turns to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and asks us, "What would you do?" It's a very difficult question to answer, even though most of us feel the world is more accepting of inter-racial couples now. Then again, we know how people say what others want to hear, not how they really feel. Some things never change when it comes to human nature.

The current A TASTE OF HONEY revival at the Odyssey Theatre stars Kestrel Leah as Jo, a working-class adolescent girl, and Sarah Underwood Saviano as Helen, her saloon-frequenting and self-centered mother. The two women bicker realistically, allowing us to experience much of their love-hate relationship. It seems neither of them really wanted to be mothers and faced the same difficult decision of keeping an unwanted baby. And in a twist that will keep you thinking long after the show, we never really know exactly what Jo will decide to do when her mixed-race baby is born.

Helen's newly acquired husband Peter is played by Eric Hunicutt as a hard-drinking, eye-patch wearing man whose finances lure Helen away from the life of poverty she experiences living with her daughter in their bug-infested, filthy apartment. Jimmie, the black sailor who makes his moves on Jo when Helen takes off with Peter, is played by Gerard Joseph. And even though we know where his real interest in Jo lies, his charm and concern for her, something Jo has never known from any other man, draws her to him and seals her fate.

And Geoff, the homosexual art student who moves into Jo's apartment to help her through her pregnancy in played by Leland Montgomery as a good-hearted man who begins to question his orientation when he sees just how much he can do for Jo after everyone else has abandoned her. That is until Helen returns and throws him out. Would she have done that if she knew the truth about the baby? We'll never know, and it appears Jo would be much better off with Geoff than her own mother in the long run. The talented cast bursts with energy and daring, allowing us to experience an explosive celebration of the vulnerabilities and strengths of the female spirit in a deprived and restless world.

"What I really love about the play is its exuberance, its vitality," shares the show's director Kim Rubinstein. "It's highly theatrical at the same time that it's realistic. It was one of the first plays to be called a 'kitchen sink drama,' yet the characters break the fourth wall to speak to the audience." As a way to honor the original production, Rubinstein decided to include a live jazz trio with a bass player and Sarah Underwood Saviano (who portrays the mother Helen), who happens to be a highly accomplished sax player, and Gerard Joseph, who plays Jo's black lover Jimmie, on drums. Their musical accompaniment, along with a wonderful selection of time-appropriate, recorded music selected by Saviano, added greatly to the moody environment of the play.

And like me, Rubinstein first came across the play as a pre-teen, when her mother took her to see the movie. "I was mesmerized by the working class world of Manchester and the complex truth of the relationships between the characters," she says. "The idea that nothing is permanent. Everything keeps changing, everything is always shifting. How does one deal with that? How do you learn to not cling to things you might have to give up? That's still our biggest challenge in today's world, which sometimes seems to be dissolving into chaos." And we have all known a time when it felt as if the rug was being pulled out from under us and life's choices seemed overwhelming to our scattered sensibilities, just like Jo in her ongoing predicaments. Too bad we can't just get up and give her a hug when she needs one!

A TASTE OF HONEY performances take place through November 27 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with additional weeknight performances on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Oct. 19 and Nov. 9; and on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Oct. 13, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3. Tickets are $34 on Saturdays and Sundays; $30 on Fridays; and $25 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with discounted tickets available for students and members of SAG/AFTRA/AEA. "Tix for $10" performances on Wednesday, Oct.19; and Thursday, Nov. 3. Post-performance discussions are scheduled on Thursday, Oct. 13 and Friday, Oct. 28. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.

Photos by Enci Box


Helen and Jo live together in a rundown apartment. (Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah)


Helen leaves her daughter for Peter. (Eric Hunicutt and Sarah Underwood Saviano)


Jimmie offers sympathy and concern for Jo. (Gerard Joseph and Kestrel Leah)


Geoff movies in to take care of Jo. (Leland Montgomery and Kestrel Leah)


Geoff takes on the role of housekeeper and caregiver. (Leland Montgomery and Kestrel Leah)


Jo reacts to her mother chastising her lifestyle. (Leland Montgomery,, Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah)


Helen attempts to care for Jo. (Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah)


Jo questions her mother on childbirth. (Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah)


Abandoned by all, Jo must face life on her own. (Kestrel Leah)


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From This Author Shari Barrett