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From Dust to the Stars 

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & oncluding its third season with Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy (through April 22), Actors Repertory Theatre is presenting its best production yet -- and it's not because of Patty Duke.





It's not in spite of her, either: Duke is effective in the emotionally remote, queen-bee role of Flora Humble, but it's the strength of Jones' script and of the cast surrounding Duke that makes Humble Boy a show not to be missed.


Mortality is a heavyweight presence in Jones' play -- in the discussions of bees and flowers dying, in discussions about the swallowing-up of matter in black holes, even in the black drapes that form an off-putting background to John Hofland's country-garden set. We're all going to die, but we all retain a spark of something worth salvaging. Jones' characters are full of contradictions: You find yourself pulling for the guy who has allowed himself to become such a bundle of ineffectual neuroses that you'd just like to punch him -- and realizing that even people with toxic personalities can appreciate good music, fine wine, and the fragrance of a bouquet.





To fully appreciate Humble Boy -- right up to the play's final punning/serious line -- it helps to know your Hamlet. But even a sketch of the premise will do: Brilliant young scholar, a misfit in any circumstances, feels especially alienated after his father's death and mother's too-sudden attraction to a grasping vulgarian. And yes, there's an Ophelia figure (much updated in the feminist way) provided as a kind of love interest.





Felix is the Hamlet figure, and this is centrally his story -- one of self-disappointment and lurching toward redemption. Carter J. Davis plays Felix as awkward and inept, forgetful, emotionally stunted. He may have the mind of a theoretical astrophysicist, but he's also a sad sack whose shoulders slump even when he snaps to attention: Eeyore, with the rain clouds perpetually following along from above. But the real strength of Davis' fine performance -- with its stuttering and sudden outbursts of righteous anger, its self-mockery delivered in surprising combination with other-directed mockery -- lies in how it borrows, loosely, from Shakespeare's hero.





Like Hamlet, Felix Humble is a good man trying to do the right thing in a world gone wrong -- and he's doing it badly, and he keeps trying anyway, and we forgive him his neuroses even as we would like to wring his neck for clinging to them. In the end, we applaud him for doing the best that he could in the circumstances. (A fair summary of the best any of us can hope for -- Davis' performance has that kind of universality.)





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ounging in a garden chaise, with face averted and eyes hidden behind insect-eye sunglasses, Duke growls insults at her son, typifying the anti-maternal mother. Ironically, in a play that promotes the capacity for deep feeling as a means of personal redemption, Flora Humble is a materialist. She even turns a discussion of chaos theory into an opportunity for making her son feel guilty.





Throughout, Duke mixes serious and comic acting techniques. There's a bit too much of bending forward at the waist and sawing her arms about during the confrontation scenes, but she still shows quite a bit of range. Examining a jewel up close, she's dismissive and hilarious, and she inspects her own nose job by crossing her eyes. But her eyes glisten with memories of her dead husband, and there's more than a hint of maternal tenderness in this aloof and rigid woman when she recounts a story about waving goodbye to her little son. But that was long ago, and Flora has her own lessons to learn now. Despite straining after some lines and emotional effects, Duke shows us Flora's journey of learning.





Jane May plays the Ophelia figure, Felix's ex-girlfriend, with masculine swagger. She throws her man to the ground and straddles him, literally slapping him around and generally calling the shots. (He may be a brilliant physicist, but he's still a lummox.) Leaning on tables in an accusatory way and firing off insults from behind a sweet smile, May presents Rosie Pye's protectiveness of the ones she loves as a nice counterpoint to the other characters' maternal (and paternal) deficiencies.





Therese Diekhans plays Mercy, a kind of enabler and lackey who showers little favors and unasked-for mercies on others, mostly as a cover-up for being the negligible cipher that she is. Fawning and flouncy, more than slightly daft, Diekhans brought down the house with the unexpected torrent of resentments she unleashes while saying grace before a meal.





Jones takes her time in mingling her comic and tragic effects, stretching Weaver's production to two and three-quarters hours (including intermission). As for the glimmers of potential happiness in the final scenes of reconciliation -- they're well worth waiting for. But as good as Patty Duke often is in this show, don't come to a performance of Humble Boy just to see the star. Come to see the actors all around her, and to ponder our place in the night sky, out there among the real, unreachable stars.

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