Play Review: Bitter Lemon


Bitter Lemon
Plan-B Theatre Company
April 11–28, 2024

In Plan-B Theatre Company’s Bitter Lemon, prolific local playwright Melissa Leilani Larson poses the question, “What if Lady Macduff finally had her say beyond her 19 lines in The Scottish Play?” Finlay Macbeth (Bobby Cody) and Lady Helen Macduff (Yolanda Stange) are trapped in limbo between life and death, following Finlay’s murder of Helen and Andrew Macduff’s vengeful murder of Finlay. The show, directed by the company’s artistic director Jerry Rapier, is billed as a “(sort of) world premiere,” as this is its first time being performed as a fully-rehearsed production after a series of stage readings at Cedar Hills’ Creekside Theatre Fest in 2019. 

Bitter Lemon begs comparisons to many of the classic existentialist plays: Waiting for Godot for the abstract purgatorial setting and incessant talking in circles, No Exit for the nagging sense that these characters are doomed to torture each other for eternity and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the extrapolation of a minor Shakespearean plot device into a full-fledged and complex character. However, Bitter Lemon is perhaps more engaging as a literary analysis or thought experiment rather than a 60-minute theatrical production. 

Yolanda Stange as Lady Helen Macduff in Bitter Lemon. Photo by Sharah Meservy courtesy of Plan-B Theatre Company.

I found it difficult to accept a feminist interpretation of Macbeth without Lady Macbeth, though her presence looms over their cyclical discussions like a spot of blood that just won’t come out. In Larson’s world, Finlay and Helen used to be childhood friends and then lovers before Marion (Lady Macbeth) and Andrew (Macduff) entered the picture. It’s an intriguing detail, but it sometimes reduces their core dynamic to “strong woman who’s moved on and her murderous ex-lover who hasn’t,” something we’ve seen many times before. 

There are a few darkly comedic moments, most of which come down to Finlay’s lack of self-awareness and Helen’s bitter retorts. Finlay calls Helen’s baking skills “bewitching” and she replies with an exasperated rhetorical question: “Why does it always come down to witchcraft with you?” Later on, the audience chuckles when Finlay asserts that the way he killed her “wasn’t personal,” to which Helen says, “How could it be personal? You didn’t even do it yourself,” referring to the lackeys who did his dirty work. Stange’s presence on stage is captivating as an angry mother separated from her children even in death, never shying away from asking difficult questions of Scotland’s power-hungry fallen king. 

Bobby Cody as Finlay Macbeth in Bitter Lemon. Photo by Sharah Meservy courtesy of Plan-B Theatre Company.

When it comes to set design, I’m typically a proponent of the philosophy that “more is more,” but the hyper-minimalist set created by scenic designer Janice Chan effectively complements the stripped-down script. The smattering of geometric stools is familiar to anyone who has ever performed a contemporary play in a black box theater, but the crinkly layered backdrops echo the idea of second chances, as if someone had crumpled up a large piece of paper, changed their mind and flattened it out again. The stage is illuminated by lighting designer Emma Belnap’s undulating blue and purple glow, which give it an almost aquatic feeling. Sound designer Cheryl Ann Cluff created the low, unsettling humming that echoes throughout the play by manipulating recordings of the actors’ own voices at different pitches. 

In the end, the two lost souls arrive at the realization that the only way out of their eternal suffering is for Finlay to own his wrongs and for Helen to forgive them. The former, however, is much easier than the latter: “I can’t do that. I’m not strong enough,” Helen says. It’s not necessarily a satisfying ending, but a realistic one, and it leaves the audience with the same lingering, acrid taste in their mouth that will continue to haunt both Finlay and Helen in perpetuity, though it may fade over time. –Asha Pruitt

There are still tickets left to see Bitter Lemon on Thursday, April 25 at 8:00 p.m. Get yours at

Read more local performance and theatre coverage:
From Script to Set: Janice Chan on Designing for Theater

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