It becomes clear rather quickly in the first scene of BEA, Actors Repertory Company’s North American premiere of British playwright Mick Gordon’s 2010 work, that the title character doesn’t live on quite the same level as the nervous young man she’s interviewing for a job. As Beatrice, a young but physically infirm woman, Bahareh Yaraghi begins by bounding around a bedroom set, swinging acrobatically from the four-poster bed frame and a somewhat mysterious ladder, and dancing circles around Brendan McMurtry-Howlett’s Ray, who is applying to be her caregiver. We soon learn all this physical exuberance is an outward manifestation of Bea’s busy mind, which has been confined in the bedroom, and in a bedridden body, for years.
Bea may have difficulties expressing herself, but Ray assumes from the outset that she’s intelligent. While he has some trouble understanding her at first, his own speech spills from him at a breakneck pace, partly out of excitement and partly out of nervousness (he’s a passionate guy). The nervousness comes into play when he meets Bea’s mother, Mrs. James (Deborah Drakeford), an intimidating and tragic figure whose life has become solely about work and caring for Bea. Ray’s nerves are further rattled by a shocking request Bea makes of him at their first meeting.
It’s never clear exactly what malady Bea suffers from. There’s an interesting story from Ray about the way people with autism view the world, but autism wouldn’t cause Bea’s debilitating and deteriorating condition. Leaving her disability vague is an important choice, because the play is clearly less interested in educating the audience about a disease, and more interested in exploring issues of compassion, self-determination, and respect. The balance of power shifts several times over the course of the play; at one point, Ray sternly cautions Bea, “You can’t take advantage of me.” Mrs. James, for her part, is far too worried about how a caregiver might take advantage of her immobile daughter to consider that Bea could be the one to mistreat him.
Bea is, ironically, the easiest character to read, as her needs and desires are writ large and clear because of her condition. It helps that Yaraghi begins exuberantly, gradually reducing the output until we see Bea as the other characters do. Mrs. James also develops over the course of the play. As we learn more details of the toll Bea’s illness has taken on her life, we comprehend why she’s become so shut off and mistrustful—of men in particular. Ray is a bit more challenging. We get plenty of backstory in the form of several monologues, but his motives, like his sexuality, are sometimes vague. (Bea teasingly calls him “Not Gay Ray,” but his keffiyeh scarf and Lady GaGa ringtone confuse matters.) This does make for some particularly interesting scenes between Ray and Mrs. James later in the play, as they deal with Bea’s request and Ray becomes the authority.
Staged in an intimate alley configuration, with the audience on either side of Bea’s bedroom, the play has some heartwarming dance sequences, set to choice tracks like Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT,” and TV On The Radio’s “Halfway Home.” There’s also a new composition by local musician MJ Cyr.