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Family, community, devotion, and apiculture are all given their due in playwright Elena Hartwell's A Strange Disappearance of Bees. The world-premiere production by Detroit Repertory Theatre is a strong union of script, direction, and tech, creating a safe-feeling yet emotionally vulnerable journey whose honey-drenched heart rarely skips a beat.

Hartwell's script uses bees and beekeeping as a framework as well as a loose metaphor for the events of the play. The central role of bees in the agriculture industry, the symbiotic relationship between the potentially deadly insects and their cultivators, the power of the female in community dynamics, and even the emergence of colony collapse disorder, a real-life threat to bees that lends the show its title, are discussed in monologue form by beekeeper Rud (Milfordean Luster). Time will tell how this highly topical entry point ages, but the connection between Rud's brief lectures and the organically unfolding events of the play are largely complementary. In fact, as directed by Hank Bennett, each element of the story feels integral, which is no small feat.

Harry Wetzel's storefront set displays impressive movement, even with a substantial part of the action happening behind a large display counter. The production is further assisted by an expertly cast ensemble, which is a particular boon for a plot that is not so much a single tale as a closely intersecting collection of lives. At the small-town Cashman's Bakery, Robert (Scott V. Norman) comes looking to meet his father, only to discover the eponymous Cashman has died. In his stead, protege and surrogate daughter Lissa (Kelly Komlen) has taken over the business, where she is brought literal and figurative honey by a longtime dalliance, Callum (Stephen Blackwell). As Robert subtly begins to sort out his issues with his parents, and not-so-subtly turns his attention to Lissa (whose own estranged birth parents were dangerously neglectful), their bond over a shared connection with Cashman further gums up the works of an already-shaky situation with Callum, whose own problems spill over into Lissa's life. Norman, Blackwell, and especially Komlen expertly navigate the longing and frustration and thinly veiled animosity of a grade-A mess, inviting empathy while not shying away from their characters' culpability; they also provide crucial payoff in rewarding moments that make the difficult parts well worth bearing.

The slow-burning love triangle is lent further intrigue with flashback scenes regarding the late Cashman (Dexter T. Mays). Awash in designer Thomas Schrader's honey-yellow light of The Past, Cashman's absence in Robert's life is given well-rounded context, as his service in Vietnam shapes his life in unexpected ways. Luster's Rud — a featured presence in scenes both then and now as lifelong companion to Cashman and unofficial guardian of Lissa — is most comfortable around a comic rejoinder, but also bears her emotional heft as a sounding board and accomplice. Costume design by Judy Dery plays with complementary colors, perhaps offering a sly commentary of its own.

It's understandable that so many overlapping threads would be nearly impossible to tie up, and Hartwell indeed bows out with a quick, resolution-averse conclusion that admittedly shoehorns the beekeeper arc into the main. Additionally, the production's overwhelming attention to the bee theme — Wetzel's honeycomb-tile flooring, Burr Huntington's on-the-nose sound design featuring "honey" or "sweet" in the lyrics of every song, even local honey for sale in the lobby — will appeal to some viewers even as it may grate on others. Nevertheless, as a tightly wound narrative that lets the viewer observe these extremely human struggles with real affection, A Strange Disappearance of Bees, and specifically this charming production, is a resounding success.


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