As the curtain, rises,
we see Bernard, a sparrow who can sing marvelously, struggling unsuccessfully
to fly. His sweetheart must leave with the migrating flock and, devastated,
he sings "If Ever." Vowing to follow her via the Mississippi
River, he encounters a caterpillar named "Beamy" who saves
his life when a human being, "Toolie," and his crazy hound
dog "Nose" show up. Toolie is a likeable ex-convict and bird
watcher whose beloved, Angelina, left him some years before. Toolie
and Nose still miss her and sing" Starlight Dreams." It turns
out that Bernard is a rare singer whom Toolie would like to capture.
The grand chase down the River that results is an important motif.
Beamy's parents passed away before telling
her who she was and about the cocoon she would develop. She thought
that that cocoon was a sign that she would soon disappear and probably
die, as did Blackie, a fellow caterpillar whom she loved deeply. Aboard
a home-made raft, Beamy and Bernard meet Pablito-a kindly male frog
who falls in love with every female frog he sees. He thinks that Beamy
is sick and suggests that they seek refuge at the small residence of
Angelina on the banks of the River. (Because she communicated with animals,
Angelina had been put in a mental institution from which she escaped
and made a home of an isolated, abandoned cabin.) Feeling the proximity
of what she interprets as death. Beamy asks Bernard to solemnly promise
to take her remains to her homeland near "the mouth of the Mississippi,
and she sings "Dreaming of Dreams" before being encapsulated
during the night.
Upon awakening, Bernard encounters Angelina
who learns that Toolie is chasing him with Nose. Angelina is still in
love with Toolie but she is also fearful of the devastation that follows
him and his love of gambling. She flees down river, and Bernard and
Elite sing "Requiem for Beamy" in front of the cocoon which
he thinks contains his friend's body. Elite, a mouse who can foresee
the future if asked, warns him that the mouth of the Mississippi is
very, very far away and suggests that with the cocoon, he has no chance
of getting there. However, Bernard is unrelenting in his commitment
to the quest of burying Beamy in her homeland.
Earlier in the play, we met Dr. Crow
who transforms creatures from what they are to what they want to be.
The price he extols consists of something intertwined' with their hopes
and dreams. He offered Bernard the power of flight in exchange for his
ability to sing: Bernard declined, without knowing that songs such as
his were necessary to the navigation of his migrating flock. Because
of man's encroaching "civilization," au. of the flock's songbirds
have become fat and lazy and had been killed. It was Bernard alone who
could teach the young songbirds the necessary songs.
After a great deal of difficulty, Bernard
finds Beamy's homeland and discovers that she has become a beautiful
butterfly. Flushed with success, he accepts Dr. Crow's offer and learns
to fly, which is the most exhilarating thing he has ever done. Learning
of his flock's situation, however, he forces the reversal of the transformation.
His beloved Bertha has married another, and again he cannot participate
in the northward migration. He does, however, teach the young songbirds
to sing and to navigate successfully. He is sad and lonely, but he has
followed his quest and done his duty. In the grand finale song "Homelands",
all of the characters express their deep affection for Bernard.