LENOX -- Mark Roberts' riveting "Parasite Drag" -- which is being given a riveting, go-for-broke production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre -- ends with the play's four characters caught in a whirlwind of their own making while tornado sirens wail outside the small rural Illinois house that is the play's setting.
No force of nature, however, can stand up to the damage that's already been done to Roberts' characters (two estranged brothers and their wives), especially the brothers -- the edgy, pushy, threatening Ronnie (an absolutely galvanic Jason Asprey in a revealing, shrewdly conceived and executed performance that goes as far as it needs to go without overstepping its already expansive boundaries,) and his younger sibling, Gene (a generally fine, convincing Josh Aaron McCabe), a tightly wound, straitlaced middle-aged man who uses his Christianity as a defense against the demons that have shaped him and who is locked in a loveless marriage to a life-weary Joellen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who revealingly navigates the routes Joellen has chosen to follow in her life.
It's been at least three years since Gene and Ronnie have last had contact. Now, with their AIDS-riddled sister Nadine on her deathbed in a nearby hospital, Ronnie and his wife, Susie (Kate Abbruzzese, at once darling, touching, scrappier and tougher than she at first seems), have invaded Gene and Joellen's home. The result for all of them will be profound.
Clearly, there is unfinished business between Gene and Ronnie. That business goes to the heart of Nadine's condition, brought about by a lifetime of abuse, humiliation, degradation -- rape, indiscriminate sex, shooting drugs with infected needles. And while neither Gene nor Ronnie is infected with AIDS, they are diseased nonetheless; damaged goods; emotional cripples who have devised their own survival strategies in response to the legacy left them by a father who has, literally and figuratively, destroyed his family -- his wife, their three children -- and who is not around to reap what he has sown.
Penetrating in its sharp, edgy, sardonic humor and its shrewd, understanding depiction of the dynamics of the relationships among this group of walking wounded, "Parasite Drag" is among the most violent plays I've ever seen. I'm not talking about the play's simmering physical violence, especially in the second act reckoning between Ronnie and Gene (who undergoes a radical awkwardly handled, by McCabe, personality shift). "Parasite Drag" is about the cruel, hard, self-serving emotional violence visited by one person upon another, often in the name of love but which, in fact, is deeply wounding betrayal, abuse and abandonment.
Director Stephen Rothman handles the play's calculated excesses with the same deft, delicate touch with which he handles the play's intimacies, especially in a second act that has the texture of two related one-act plays. One is the ultimate reckoning between Ronnie and Gene when all the demon secrets of their past, and Nadine's, come out to play. The other is the opening scene in which, over morning coffee, Susie and Joellen talk about sex, their husbands, their lives. At one point Susie probes Joellen for information about Ronnie's youth -- something he won't discuss with her. When she learns that Ronnie and Joellen went to high school together, Susie's interest is heightened. She gets a bit more than she bargained for, however, when Joellen acknowledges Susie's hunch that she had a crush on Ronnie during those high school years.
"Still do," Joellen adds, playfully and meaningfully. The look that crosses Abbruzzese's Susie's face, the way in which she rebounds at the end of the scene is sheer acting mastery. Indeed, this act two opening is alone worth the admission.
"Parasite Drag" is not a gentle play. It is, however, compassionate. Roberts feels and understands the deep pain of characters who are, for the most part, without love in their lives and who are, in many ways, ill-equipped to accept it, welcome it, even if it walked right in and made itself at home.
Darkly funny, raw, visceral, dangerous, safe, poignant, sad. Life.
Caution: "Parasite Drag" has coarse language and adult situations.
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