Somehow the idea of a play about a computer animator who inadvertently joins a volunteer program to help abusive welfare mothers, befriending and assisting one of them, sounds unprepossessing, not to say careless. Inadvertently? So, as one person commented aloud in the lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre Center where just such a play--Casey Kurtti's "Three Ways Home"--opened over the weekend: What a surprise.
Kurtti's play is no soft little exercise in white middle class liberal compassion. This is one tough-talking slab of writing whose jangled emotional keyboard is perfectly tuned. It makes an unsparing, frequently comic kind of music that lifts a potentially lachrymose, bleeding-heart situation out of the humdrum and wouldn't be caught dead imitating, condescending or patronizing anything or anyone.
Properly speaking, this is not the story of a reluctant friendship between Sharon (Deirdre O'Connell), the childless white volunteer, and Dawn (Vonetta McGee), the black welfare mother of four with a sometime live-in, sometime violent boyfriend. It is the story of their enthusiastic aggressions: determined collisions, campaign strategies and open warfare that end up in family court where the volunteer, to her surprise, finds herself joining the enemy.
That scene is what you call pivotal, marking a predictable turning point in the embattled relationship. But in Kurtti's clever writing and the razor-sharp production this play receives at the hands of O'Connell, McGee and the acrobatic Glenn Plummer (who plays Dawn's 16-year-old son, Frankie, a kid strung out between his X-Men comic book power dreams and his powerlessness as a hustler trying to deal with the real world), the moment is triumphant.
Kurtti's play, whose major sin is going on a bit too long, brooks no sentimentality. It suggests that the roughest and most improbable encounters can bear improbable fruit if a willful, stubborn intelligence prevails on both sides. But that's all the concessions it makes. The troubled Frankie is the linchpin of the women's relationship, and director Chris Silva has smartly made the character more emblematic than real--a ubiquitous, furtive presence who haunts the play as he must haunt his mother's waking moments and our collective conscience, while at the same time remaining one of Peter Pan's classically Lost Boys.
Quite a trick. But then Silva's staging altogether is quite a trick. The production is draped against a series of dark fire-escapes (designed by Donald Eastman and lit by Anne Militello, both of whom designed the same show for Silva in New York last summer) that serve as a giant Jungle Jim for the dream-obsessed Frankie. Plummer is a wiz at filling Frankie's shoes, streetwise, aching, curiously innocent and bouncing around the stage with the resilience of a rubber ball.
But this is not to take anything away from the women who, between them, carry the play. Dawn, with the giant chip on her shoulder, is a predictable customer, outwardly stubborn and tough, but devoted to and protective of her kids. Kurtti, however, ups the ante by giving her colorful and sometimes unexpected responses--which the attractive, forceful McGee carries off with style and presence.
More intriguing is the paradoxical character of Sharon, a woman motivated enough to maintain a career, yet who allows herself to be sucked into this roller-coaster volunteerism largely in spite of herself. Much of what makes the play uncommon is Sharon's reluctant embrace of her new role. And O'Connell plays her with such an edge of self-mockery, her own amusement at her involuntary new role, that it undercuts any potential pretentiousness that this perilous theme invites. It's another benchmark for this amazing actress ("Etta Jenks," "Stars in the Morning Sky").
There is a fourth and important character in this play who never appears on stage. It is the disembodied presence of Janet, the caseworker who ropes Sharon into volunteering and Dawn into accepting the volunteer. Through this programmed quasi-mythical creature, Kurtti strikes some of her more serious satirical blows, undercutting the standard psychobabble and bankrupt phrases designed to fix unbearable lives with Happy Face Band-Aids.
That subtext alone would be worth the price of admission. But there is a lot more going on in "Three Ways Home" than meets the ear. And if Kurtti would only take a hard look at the play's second half and slash a good 10 minutes, few experiences would touch this one for unmoralistic lessons in deep morality.
At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, until April 30. Tickets: $22-$25; (213) 627-5599.