CHESTER -- The setting for J.T. Rogers' intriguing play, "Madagascar," is a hotel room in Rome that looks down on the Spanish Steps and hints at a more elegant time.
As designed by Travis A. George for director James Warwick's meticulously crafted, impeccably acted production at Chester Theatre Company, the high-ceilinged room's bare walls serve as a blank canvas upon which is painted a landscape not only of a missing young man but a family for whom loss becomes a sad fact of life.
"Madagascar" is structured as three interwoven narratives delivered by a widow and mother, Lillian (Debra Jo Rupp), five years earlier; June (Kim Stauffer), a young American tourist guide for whom this room holds special memory and meaning and whom we see and hear from a perspective of only five days earlier; and an American middle-grade economist named Nathan (Paul O'Brien), who is in Rome on urgent business and whose perspective is now, the present.
Time may separate these three but they are inextricably linked -- Lillian and June are mother and daughter; Nathan was a close friend of the family and a trusted colleague of Lillian's long-since deceased husband, Arthur, although he never rose to Arthur's genius or initiative.
What secures the bond among them is the unexplained disappearance five years earlier of June's fraternal twin brother, Gideon Paul. Despite an unrelenting two-year search by June, there's been no trace of him; no hint as to whether he is dead or alive. The only hint at a reason is a cryptic notation from Paul that everything he believed in all through his upbringing in a family of wealth and privilege was a lie.
Paul's disappearance reverberates in unsettling, profound ways.
It's the unfinished business, the unresolved issues, the things not said or done that tear at the fabric of a family whose members face loss everywhere any of them turns.
"It is what you don't do that you deserve to be punished for," Lillian says with the weight of recognition.
Rogers has constructed this play shrewdly. Revelations are meted out carefully.
This is not a "Rashomon" case of differing versions of one event. The narratives combine to paint a vivid, sad, at times poignant, portrait of three people -- five, when you factor in Paul and his father, Arthur -- who make hard choices for which there are profound, high-stakes consequences.
Warwick and his expert cast spin "Madagascar" with keen understanding and emotional detail. This is a clean smartly acted production that never oversteps its emotional boundaries.
"Madagascar" is about death, loss, love, moral choices. It is about trust and betrayal and what happens when, as Paul enigmatically writes, everything you've been conditioned to believe is true proves false. It's a play about people who take risks with the most delicate and meaningful relationships.
It's a play about closure, the need for closure, and what happens when life, as it so often will, provides no answers for the dilemmas facing us.
"A secret," Nathan says at one point, "is an answer waiting to be revealed. A mystery is just that -- a mystery."