Theater Review: Hymn – A moving tale of brotherly love at Shakespeare & Company

Benny ("ranney") and Gil (Kevin Craig West) in "Hymn" at Shakespeare & Company; photos by Nile Scott Studios.
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One of the best things about Shakespeare & Company (in addition to the variety of plays they present on their campus in Lenox, Massachusetts; their renowned education programs; and their free lectures and other community events) is that their productions typically have a long run. While Tanglewood music programs are one-night only, Jacob’s Pillow mainstage dance programs run shy of a week, and the other local theater groups schedule plays for a few weeks, many productions at S&Co run for more than a month, giving overwhelmed audiences in the Berkshires the option of seeing the fleeting shows first and catching S&Co productions when there’s some breathing room as the other cultural venues wind down for the summer.

At least that’s usually my summer cultural season strategy, which explains why I saw S&Co’s production of Hymn, a two-hander by Lolita Chakrabarti, toward the end of its run. And I’m glad I caught it before it closed last week, because I found it to be a profound and somehow serene theatrical experience after the summer run-around; this thoughtful, tender production—directed by Regge Life—caused me to slow down and absorb the development of a relationship between two men with a common bond.

Gil delivers the eulogy for his father, Gus

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal the common bond as a father. Benny (played by “ranney,” whom I last saw at S&Co in Art) and Gil (the charismatic Kevin Craig West, last at Shakespeare & Company early this year in Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss) meet as Gil delivers a eulogy for his father Augustus (Gus) Clarence Jones, a hard-working, entrepreneurial tailor who built up a small business empire and raised four kids in upper-middle-class comfort: Cleo, Diane, Sweetie, and the baby of the family, Gil. But it turns out Gil is not the baby; that honorific goes to Benny, six days his junior, the result of an affair between his mother and Gus that is a surprise to all involved.

Benny is down on his luck as the play begins

We’ve already met Benny, being thrown out of a bar, drunk, railing at the unseen, unhearing, uncaring barkeep, sipping from a nip bottle in his coat pocket. Songs end most of the scenes in Hymn, and this one ends with the classic Lean on Me, by Bill Withers. As the song goes, “We all need somebody to lean on.”

The first encounter between the half brothers is prickly: Benny has just learned that Gus was his father, and you can sense he carries resentment because his life has not been as easy as that of Gil and his siblings. For his part, Gil is suspicious of Benny just showing up at the funeral. Is he hoping to inherit some money? Is he even really Gus’s son? Both men have their defenses up; they are reticent, finding it hard to communicate. The scene ends on The Temptations: Papa was a Rolling Stone.

The relationship between Benny and Gil transforms from defensive to warm over the course of the play

The play proceeds through the seasons with a series of meetings during which Gil and Benny get to know each other. They gradually let their defenses down, their relationship warms, and the brothers are embraced by each other’s family until they are a family. It’s rewarding to watch this relationship develop and deepen, all to the soundtrack of music that is another brotherly bond. Playwright Chakrabarti is reaching for something subtle with this play; it’s unforcedly poetic. In his eulogy for Gus, Gil recounts that his father described music as silence, sound, and time, a line that returns toward the end of the play. Early on in their relationship, Gil relates an experience of two hearts coming into sync, which Benny—who is more passionate and knowledgeable about music—identifies as sympathetic resonance, harmonic likeness. Before the audience’s eyes, these newfound brothers attain that harmonic likeness… until tragedy strikes.

Benny comes to Gil’s aid in Hymn

It’s a credit to the actors’ skills, and keen direction by Regge Life, that this play imparts profound resonance. It’s well served by a spare set and purposeful lighting (by Juliana Von Haubrich and Katie Ward, respectively) that capture different locations: a cafe, a dingy boxing gym, a basement full of memories, a police station… While the play doesn’t deliver the happy ending we might have been hoping for, it does deliver a touching, bittersweet ending, and a tale of brotherly love that will remain on my mind over many seasons.

Photos by Nile Scott Studios


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