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The Bennett Boy
by Tony Moore
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
1/27-28, 8 p.m. • $12
(910) 471-5690

I have to confess: I am a fan of local playwright Tony Moore, and I look forward to any opportunity to see his work preformed. “The Bennett Boy,” Moore’s current offering through ByChance Productions at Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse, might be his best work yet. Moore is a craftsman who has spent years trying again and again and even harder through each venture. His ear has been tuned finer and his blade sharpened. For this production, he teamed up with directing guru Steve Vernon, and the pair have really produced something incredible.

“The Bennett Boy” opens with the preparations for Carson’s (Richard Woodcock) surprise 10th birthday. Brooke (Heather Setzler), the live-in nanny, and Carson’s father Jordan Bennett (Tony Moore) are trying to get banners hung and cake displayed properly. Brooke and Jordan “play house together, rather nicely,” as Jordan’s mother Betty (Chris Brown) observes. Betty lives close by and comes over every night to cook dinner.

To round out the domestic tableau is Uncle Dennis (Brendan Carter), who was recently laid off and is celebrating his own self-pity party. Carson seems to have a familiar picture-perfect childhood. His father adores and spend lots of quality time with him, and Brooke “has spent almost every day of his life with him,” too. He has a loving if slightly despondent uncle and a grandma who comes right out of a story book.

Moore carefully builds the scenario with flawed but realistic people who are easy to love, because, underneath any short coming, they care very deeply for each other. Just when the audience is comfortable, he springs the fateful appearance of the woman from the past. Jordan opens the door to find Carson’s mother, not seen for 10 years almost to the day, standing in the hallway.

Tess (Melissa Stanley) is a sinister apparition who leaves this small family unit reeling. Now a recovering alcoholic, she has found a wealthy fiancé and has decided, at long last, she wants custody of the child she abandoned at birth. What follows is a look at the coping mechanisms of each person in a highly charged situation.

Carter’s depiction of Uncle Dennis, already on edge with his job loss, is a nuanced exploration of the male psyche in desperation. At turns, he’s quintessentially macho—literally threatening violence against anyone who hurts his family—and at others a disappointed little boy trapped in an adult body, desperate for approval. The sibling interplay between he and Moore is pitch-perfect, but his tenderness toward Woodcock is a joy to watch.

I have never seen Heather Setzler in a non-singing role prior to this show. As Pricilla said to Elvis, “Boy, have we been wasting time!” Her singing voice is marvelous, which is why she is a staple of the musical genre around here, but what a treat it is to really see her acting skills shine. She has great comedic timing, and she and Stanley are the perfect foils for each other. Setzler’s Brooke exudes goodness, kindness, sweetness and light, while Stanley’s Tess is a work of dark terror. Her focused, hypnotic gaze, once fixed upon Moore, sent shivers down my spine, and visibly had the same effect on the cast as well. The only place she warms is when she tries to connect with Woodcock. These attempts might be the real key to Stanley’s performance because, besides the strain that she faces through every minute, we also see her naked desperation.

The person with real perspective on the situation at hand is of course Grandma Betty. Chris Brown is a real delight onstage—so natural and her ability to show, not tell, the audience about her different relationships with the two sons is subtle but clear. The whole cast as an ensemble has fabulous energy and wonderful chemistry.

One of the advantages an experienced director brings to a script which requires most of the cast onstage simultaneously is that he can actually move people around so the action heightens the text and doesn’t obscure the emotional subtext. This might be Vernon’s hallmark. It is infuriating to see mobs of actors mulling about without direction. Vernon is the opposite. He would make Uta Hagen proud any day: Everybody has something to do and a reason for doing it. The audience can almost watch the emotional tennis ball tossed between the actors as power and attention shift during scenes.

Though this is a script about a child custody battle, it skillfully addresses several timely, pertinent questions about family. Brooke, for example, is referred to by Tess and her fiancé, August (Steve Rassin), as “the help.” In reality, she has been Carson’s mother in every way for the last 10 years.

“I am not just the help!” she repeats throughout, fighting to justify her place in his life. It’s not just commentary on the role of nannies among children with working parents, it also touches on the role of step-parents and the increasingly asked question of the roles played in same-gender parenting relationships. Legally, she has no standing, but emotionally she gave her heart to that little boy 10 years ago and has done so every day since—not just to him but to his father as well. Because she doesn’t have a suitable label, does that make her any less real?

As for Uncle Dennis, he might have an official family title, but like many people in America today, he is struggling with job loss and attendant “self-loss,” which makes him question who he is every time he looks at his nephew whom idolizes him.

It can be hard to remember that Tony Moore is younger than I am, when confronted with the insights that he weaves so deftly into his scripts. I am not exaggerating when I say I had tears running down my face by the end of the show. I think Moore’s real gift as a playwright is his ability not only to write comedic dialogue but to capture those terribly funny moments that happen even in the middle of tragic human crisis. Many writers fail to realize that even in the most emotionally heightened moments of life there are inappropriately funny things to endure. In a play, the audience needs those moments as a release valve.

Unfortunately, in the land of technical theater, when a job is well done, people should notice it. The set was functional and attractive. Both it and the lighting accomplished what they were supposed to: enhancing the script and making the actors look good. All in all, “The Bennett Boy” provides a true five-star evening of theatre.

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