By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — If "Humble Boy" and its themes of death, grief, family and sex seem, well, a bit familiar, it's with good reason.
"'Humble Boy' is really a retelling of 'Hamlet' set in a family of beekeepers," said Phil Murphy, executive director for the Old Town Playhouse, which opens its Studio Theatre season with the show, beginning Oct. 5.
The play, written by Charlotte Jones, is a drama with "lots of light moments that lead to a sentimental ending," said director Sheri Wallace. It explores the complex relationships of a family brought together by a traumatic event and their search for meaning, redemption and purpose.
After the death of his father James, a professor and amateur beekeeper, awkward astrophysicist Felix Humble is forced to return to his family home in the English countryside. There he and his demanding mother, Flora, attempt to reconcile themselves to James's death and to each other, a task complicated by the arrival of George, Flora's longtime lover, and his daughter, Rosie, Felix' former girlfriend.
"There's a lot of underlying messages in this play," said Wallace, who was drawn to the story's family dynamics and healing relationships. "There's 'Hamlet' and then there's a parallel between honeybees and the way a honeybee hive functions like a family. It's a thought-provoking play but in the process it's fun. There are so many different layers. I want (audiences) to walk away with so many topics that they won't stop talking about it for a week."
Wallace is a first-time director, though she's been involved behind the scenes at OTP for 11 years.
"My son dragged me into the theater many years ago with his passion for acting. I've done just about everything you can imagine backstage," she said. Son Geoffrey, a Northwestern Michigan College student and former OTP Young Company member, also will make his OTP directorial debut this season.
"Humble Boy" features an ensemble cast of six, including relative OTP newcomer Joel Curiel as Felix Humble and OTP veteran Maryscott O'Connor as his self-absorbed mother, Flora. Both were last seen in the theater's May production of "The Tavern."
Wallace's directing mentor, OTP mainstay Jan Dalton, also has a role in the show.
"It's a very small cast so there aren't really any small roles," said Wallace, whose version of the play sticks close to the original — down to the English accents.
The show runs weekends through Oct. 20 at the Studio Theatre at the Depot, at the corner of E. Eighth Street and Woodmere Avenue. In a departure from past seasons, evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. and only one matinee will take place during the run.
Oct. 5 and 6 shows will include a preshow "talk back" with OTP Young Company Director and Shakespeare scholar Mychelle Hopkins from 6 to 7 p.m. Hopkins, who saw the London debut of the play at the Royal National Theatre, will discuss the parallels between the show and "Hamlet." A local beekeeper will talk about bees and the hierarchy of the hive.
Tickets are $15 at oldtownplayhouse.com or TREATickets.com.