Kids gaining independence from good ol’ Mom and Dad used to be an almost universal rite of passage — at least until the foundering economy turned plenty of present-day young adults into boomerang offspring.
In Leonard Gershe’s play Butterflies Are Free, aspiring singer-songwriter Don Baker is stubbornly trying to cut apron strings that seem to be made of steel, not cloth. But his mother, a wealthy widow from Scarsdale who has spent much of her adult life overprotecting her blind only child, is equally determined to yank her son back home.
Gershe’s play is hardly new: It was produced on Broadway in 1969 by Arthur Whitelaw (now a South Floridian), where it ran for an impressive 1,128 performances. It then got made into a 1972 movie that won Eileen Heckart an Oscar for portraying the smothering Mrs. Baker.
But as Stage Door Theatre’s new production of Butterflies Are Free so engagingly demonstrates, vintage theater isn’t the same thing as dated theater. Butterflies isn’t Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie, but it is truthful and resonant, and its combination of interpersonal drama and edgy humor makes for an absorbing, entertaining couple of hours.
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Stage Door’s production works so well for a couple of reasons. The company hired director Michael Leeds and set designer Michael McClain, both Carbonell Award winners for the The Timekeepers at Island City Stage last season, to work their magic. A freelancer and onetime Tony Award nominee who has directed at Stage Door many times, Leeds works with his well-cast actors to shape richly colored performances, working the beats of a scene like a masterful conductor.
Set in a one-of-a-kind apartment on New York’s Lower East Side in ’69, the play unfolds over a life-altering day and evening. Don (Britt Michael Gordon) has memorized every inch of the hippie-friendly pad that has been his home for a month. He confidently climbs a ladder to its ridiculously high platform bed, goes into the bathroom to retrieve his clothing, knows precisely how many steps to take to reach his dual-purpose bathtub and dining table. He is hopeful and, more importantly, happy.
Mrs. Baker (Brook Packard) is not. Despite her reluctant agreement not to visit Don for two months, she tries to keep her son’s tether strong with phone calls, until she simply can’t bear not seeing her son’s “mistake” for herself. After a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy her boy shirts that make him look like an accountant, she silently appears at his open door, her overpowering perfume telegraphing her arrival to Don and her haughty pose telling the audience volumes about the sort of woman she is.
Mrs. B has caught Don and his next-door neighbor, 19-year-old aspiring actress Jill Tanner (Gina Marie Jamieson), in their undies. Though Don and Jill have just met, Don’s appalled mother detects a post-coital atmosphere, and she’s correct. It is, after all, 1969. Jill is an eccentric free spirit. Don’s lonely. So if they share a little nice-to-meet-you sex, that’s just a groovy sign of the times.
Butterflies Are Free explores Don’s ongoing struggle for independence, with the strong-willed women pulling him in opposite directions.
Gordon charms the audience from the opening moments of the play, before Don ever utters a word, and his charismatic appeal just keeps deepening. He sings a folk-style song (written by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked) and croons like Bob Dylan on a bit of Like a Rolling Stone. The actor impressively conveys Don’s romantic vulnerability and the fears he works so hard to hide.
Packard’s Mrs. Baker is, at first, a fierce and condescending mama bear. Her comments to Jill are delivered with a tight smile and inflections that border on the lethal. Yet Packard, too, lets us see the fears and love beneath the in-control façade.
Jill is often played as an airhead, and though Jamieson makes us laugh with the character’s penchant for misquoting, she captures the damaged and fearful young woman behind the bravado. As director Ralph Austin, Jill’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, the always-fine Andy Quiroga is all cringe-inducing, possessive swagger.
Thanks to the astute, skillful Leeds, Stage Door’s Butterflies Are Free floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. And it also, most significantly, touches the heart.