Review of Bernice’s 70th Birthday at First Run Theatre

    The three characters in Bernice’s 70th Birthday deal with difficult family problems over the course of a week. The play by Nancy Gall-Clayton made a good impression in its recent premiere by First Run Theatre.

    The action takes place in a small Midwestern town before the Supreme Court decision that affirmed marriage equality. The title character is a retired food editor who likes making tonics. Her daughter, Carol, is compulsive about two things: her work as prosecuting attorney and her penchant for solving other people’s problem. One of those problems is her mother’s living arrangements.

    The widowed Bernice now lives alone in the house she used to share with her husband and two children. Carol wants Bernice to downsize and has a specific condo development in mind when she visits her mother on her 70th birthday. Bernice has other ideas and wants Carol to remove all her belongings that are still in Bernice’s basement.

    Carol has a problem of her own to solve. Her husband has just left her, and she has not yet told their adult children. Bernice has a problem, too. In the last eight years, she has not communicated with her son, Evan, who was born when Carol was 19 and had just left for college. The estrangement began when Bernice found out Evan was gay. Now he has some questions he wants answered, so he, too, visits his mother on her 70th birthday.

    Among the plays I have seen about coming out to a parent, Gall-Clayton’s is unusual in how much emphasis it puts on the parent’s experience. Bernice could not cope with learning Evan was gay. The play gives her another chance to work through her feelings.

    Gall-Clayton writes believable dialogue, controls dramatic tension well, and brings the play to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

    The recent First Run production was admirably paced by director Sean Belt and convincingly performed by a fine cast. Deb Dennert’s portrayal of the title character captured not only the feistiness Bernice displays in most of her life but also the vulnerability and regret that overtake her when she must face her estranged son. Tyson Cole projected Evan’s current positive sense of self as well as the pain that remains from his mother’s rejection. Tanya Badgley found the humor in Carol’s obsessiveness.

    Brad Slavik’s scenic design included a handsome surface for the back porch where Bernice’s family holds all its birthday parties. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes met the challenge of dressing Bernice in clothes that match the colors of the tonics she makes. The helpful sound and lighting were by Jenn Ciavarella and Nathan Schroeder respectively.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Brad Slavik
    From the left, Tanya Badly as Carol, Tyson Cole as Evan, and Deb Dennert as Bernice in
    Bernice’s 70th Birthday.