WILMINGTON — UNCW’s theater department opened its first student production of the season Thursday evening. Featuring a cast of five, “A Taste of Honey” players turned around the show in only 28 days of rehearsals, according to its director, Ed Wagenseller.
A local actor who has worked in the department since 2000, Wagenseller said launching a quality production doesn’t always require five or six weeks of rehearsals. “We put this up with only 19 rehearsals and in less than four weeks from the date of casting,” he said. “Hard work supersedes talent — although, this cast is one of the more naturally gifted group of actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”
Written by 18-year-old Shelagh Delaney in the late ‘50s, “A Taste of Honey” — which also became a film in 1961 — takes a look at a fraught relationship between a mother and daughter in 1959 Salford, England. Hard on their luck, Helen and Jo have just moved into a rundown apartment. A heavy drinker and fun-time girl, Helen has more interest in finding her way through the bottle and with a younger man who has money, instead of landing a job to take care of her 17-year-old.
“Helen is definitely a force to be reckoned with,” said 20-year-old Meghan McDonald, who plays the mother. “She holds command of every room she enters and demands the attention of everyone inside of it. She certainly drives the show at full speed.”
When Helen ends up marrying her lover, she leaves Jo in their shabby flat to fend for herself.
The relationship between the two resembles that of sibling rivalry rather than a nurturing mother-daughter connection. Arguments drenched with insults are a dime-a-dozen between the two — though, at the root of their tension, a desire to be loved festers.
“This production raises questions for me: ‘What is family’ and ‘Where is it found?’” 21-year-old Nanouri Winchester said.
An international exchange student here for the semester from Rose Bruford College in London, Winchester is performing the role of Jo — someone she calls complex and passionate, if not lonely, naive and innocent. Jo is forced to grow up on her own after her mother marries and leaves. She has met and falls in love with a Black sailor, Jimmy, who proposes to her. Before Helen abandons her daughter, she scolds her for wanting to marry so young, one of the only visible moments at an attempt to nurture. However, Jimmy gets shipped off to sea and leaves behind the teenager — now an expectant mother.
With her mother no longer around, Jo finds camaraderie in a gay roommate, Geof, who vows to stick by Jo and help her raise the baby. Still, Jo manages to push him away, too, an old habit to protect herself from deeply rooted abandonment issues: a mother who left, a father she never knew.
“Jo doesn’t get much love from her mother, and she has never known paternal love, so she has to search for love elsewhere and find her own family,” Winchester explained. “She tries to break the lonely cycle that her mother puts her in so that she can be better for her children, but she doesn’t know how to.”
According to Winchester, the show really presents a universal narrative many will be able to relate to: the want to be loved. Yet, the play also treads on other themes — sexism and racism, poverty, homophobia and teenage pregnancy. Delaney wrote “A Taste of Honey” in the mid-20th century at a time when “kitchen sink dramas” were popular. The British cultural movement focused on stories featuring controversial topics of young women who often were written as perturbed and defied societal mores.
“The play tackles discrimination, both racial and socioeconomic,” Wagenseller said. “I would say it only exists in 1959 England, but sadly we are still dealing with discrimination and equity in modern America, so it is still relevant today.”
Part of the appeal of Delaney’s writing comes in the breadth of emotional adolescence clearly apparent in both characters. The mother and daughter essentially are growing up together, something Wagenseller said was key in tapping into the script.
“You can sense the immaturity in some aspects of the writing,” he said. “The nuances of character are fascinating and provide a real character piece for the actors to explore.”
And they’re not caricatures either.
“These characters are real people, we’ve met them before in our own lives,” McDonald said.
Wagenseller calls McDonald’s portrayal of Helen “a sight to behold” and Winchester as Jo “heartbreakingly wonderful.” Together, they show the fragile nature of human disconnection broken by the force of an acerbic tongue. Delaney’s writing is dialogue-heavy and charged, according to Wagenseller.
“Delaney’s language is so tough,” he said. “As an actor, it’s full of non-sequiturs and stops and starts, and all they do is talk, talk, talk! It’s maddening.”
As well, the actors went through hours of dialect coaching, in order to keep the English accents and corresponding rhythms true to real life. Being from London, Winchester was able to help coach.
“To perform without dialect is to do a disservice to the playwright, the cast, and most importantly the audience,” Wagenseller said.
But the director is clear the actors never talk at one another, but lean into how their words affect the other characters. He coached his cast to produce action behind the words and build on their impact. For Winchester, in order for Jo’s constant quips and deadpan sarcasm not to land flatly, she said it was important to make her relationships feel utterly authentic.
“By the end of rehearsals, [Jo’s] outbursts never came out of nowhere, but were really a response to so much pain and torment that [others] have wrought upon her,” Winchester explained.
It’s the first time “A Taste of Honey” has been produced at UNCW, as far as Wagenseller knows. The play was chosen by a committee, but UNCW’s costume designer, Mark Sorenson, suggested Wagenseller would be a good fit directing.
“He is my ‘play whisperer,’” the director said, and “knows my style.”
Acute stage blocking and a solid design team added to the completion of Helen and Jo’s bleak world. The set consists of the façade of a brick building, though front and center is a one-bedroom, grimy and dingy apartment, sparsely furnished to evoke poverty. Over 90 props appear throughout the two-hour production.
“The world is one of hopelessness and ruin and yet these characters have to flourish in a world where they are not necessarily welcome,” Wagenseller described. “The scenic design reflects that.”
“A Taste of Honey” will continue Sept. 24-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 8 p.m., and Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 2 p.m. Performances take place at the mainstage theater in the Cultural Arts Building on UNCW’s campus. Admission is $6-$15 and all audience members are required to wear masks. The cast will perform maskless but everyone has been vaccinated, a requirement to perform in the show according to Wagenseller.
However, the theater department has made the show accessible to individuals who wish to watch from the comfort of home. Tickets are $18 and the streaming site can be accessed here.
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