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Mark O'Rowe's dark and dangerous Our Few and Evil Days might be classified as a family drama — if you hate families. Inis Nua Theatre Company's U.S. premiere, by the Irish scribe of Howie the Rookie, Terminus, and Made in China (Inis Nua, 2009), bubbles with submerged tension from the start. It also explodes later in surprising and disturbing ways I will not spoil here.
Meghan Jones's set reveals the seemingly comfortable middle-class South Dublin home of Michael (Andrew Criss) and Margaret (Nancy Boykin): a living room framed in flowery wallpaper, a round dining table, a kitchen with running water, and a laundry nook. It all looks real and nice. Andrew Cowles shines sunlight through the windows in day scenes, and nights are delicately lit in blue.
Only the people seem off.
Beyond first impressions
First, in the play's silent opening scene, why does Margaret sleep alone on the living-room sofabed? In the next scene, Dennis (Liam Mulshine) visits Michael and Margaret's daughter Adele (Amy Frear), but she's off dealing with her best friend Belinda's problems, a "far bigger crisis than usual."
Adele finally arrives, and much of Act I's "doing the parent thing," as Adele calls it, seems pleasantly mundane. But troubling hints of discord surface in old stories and reluctant answers to simple questions.
O'Rowe jumps to new scenes in ways that reveal the characters are learning secrets, but we don't hear the full stories — at first. Sound designer Daniel Ison builds suspense with eerie cello music between scenes. In the dead of night, after Adele has left again to minister to Belinda but Dennis stays over, the first secrets are revealed.
The second act moves faster and louder, adding Belinda's abusive boyfriend Gary (Nicholas Roesler) and more revelations. O'Rowe doesn't draw neat psychological lines between characters and events, instead conjuring a family fractured by a thousand small cracks resulting from one long-ago tragedy. I daren’t say more.
No one fights like family
All five actors convincingly create the simmering tension in director Tom Reing's taut staging. Beneath the alcohol-fueled affability of Criss's Michael lurks a dangerous temper. The concerns of Boykin's Margaret regarding decorum barely hide her haunted psyche. Mulshine's Dennis seems normal and well-intentioned, but he's hiding some terrible surprises. Roesler's Gary, Belinda's tormenter, frightens as an out-of-control, red-faced monster.
At the play's center, struggling to unlock mysteries, is Frear's fascinatingly complex Adele. We can see her listening, thinking, struggling to remember — but she's not a victim. It's her force of will and need for the truth that blow the teetering family wide open.
O'Rowe and Reing build Our Few and Evil Days to an appropriately eerie final moment. The play's two hours are a fascinating and harrowing journey that conveys no tidy message about loving or trusting family. If yours isn't as twisted and damaged as this one, consider yourself lucky.
What, When, Where
Our Few and Evil Days. By Mark O'Rowe, Tom Reing directed. Inis Nua Theatre Company. Through May 13, 2018, at the Drake’s Proscenium Theatre, 302 s. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
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