One may recognize Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free, written and set in 1969, from the film adaptation starring Goldie Hawn. The Cloverdale Performing Arts Center (CPAC) has a production of this running through July 31.
Loosely inspired by the early life of blind Harvard-educated lawyer Harold Krents, the story follows a day in the life of young, blind and motivated Don Baker. Don is one month into a two-month sabbatical from his overprotective mother (Athena Gundlach). Living on his own for the first time, he meets next-door neighbor Jill (Shannon Sawyer), whom he falls for instantly.
Predictably, mother shows up to find the two unclothed and seemingly sharing an apartment. Mama Baker scares the young Jill with a nightmare scenario of life with a blind man, which leads her back into the arms of her friend Ralph (Christopher Johnston).
There is much to like here. Few local directors have Amy Lovato’s calm competency. Regardless of script shortfalls, she always delivers a professional, engrossing play.
Gundlach, Johnston and Hamilton Lee are well cast. Gundlach’s Mrs. Baker is a force with which to be reckoned. Hamilton-Lee’s Don is grounded and moody, with wit presented more as keen sarcasm than humor. Johnston is loudly over-the-top in the best possible way. Sawyer, however, tends to play at a surface level and never finds depth in her character, making the play’s finale even more troublesome.
There are two elephants in this room. The first is blindness being portrayed by a sighted actor. Cloverdale is a house that always strives to do things equitably with an eye to advance all populations, and thoughtfully brought in a vision consultant (Jonathan Jose Esparza) to advise the cast. Whether casting a sighted actor was the correct decision is not for a sighted reviewer to make.
The second elephant is to be expected from a play written by a man in the ’60s: casual misogyny. The “happy” ending of this play is in reality the fallout of emotional bullying. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t addressed, as it could have been a teaching moment for all.
Butterflies are Free is an evenly directed, well-cast, and well-costumed play. Just be prepared to leave modern sensibilities at the door (and for gawd’s-sake, leave cell phones at the door, too).
‘’Butterflies are Free’ runs through July 31 at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, 209 N. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale. Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm. $12 -$25. Special Club 99 performance Thursday, July 21, $50. Recommended for viewers aged 13 and up due to mature language and brief sexual content. 707.894.2219. cloverdaleperformingarts.com