Caryl Churchill wrote "Cloud Nine" in the 1980s, after the all-loving licentiousness of the late '60s and '70s and before the pruderies, prompted by sexual harassment suits and AIDS, of the '90s.
Churchill juxtaposes not only two generations, but also two eras, in an attempt explain her views. In the first act we're in 1880, with a stiff-upper-lip British family living by the mores of their time and place. In the second act, it's 100 years later, but the characters from the first act have aged only 25 years.
Effeminate son Edward (Erin Davis), who plays with dolls in Act 1, grows up to be Hyde Park gardener Eddie (Peter Westenhofer) in Act 2. The actor who plays Betty (Matt McCray), the restricted mother and wife, in Act 1 is Eddie's lover in Act 2. Churchill is making a strong comment on where we stand sexually, or did in the mid-'80s.
Director Michael Nehring understands the kinkiness of Churchill's tone poem to identity. In the cartoonish first act, he infuses his cast with energy and sincerity. The complacent Act 2 Eddie is presaged by Act 1's Clive, the dominant 19th century husband, in a nicely multicolored performance by Westenhofer.
McCray's Betty, kittenish and coy, is topped by his authentic and honest Gerry, the pseudo-macho street lover.
All the actors deftly carve portraits of characters making the uncomfortable transition between eras. Raymond Manukay is exceptional as the boy in servitude to the African raj and as the career-conscious Martin in Act 2.
McCray's Act 1 Betty is an interesting contrast to Davis' Act 2 Betty, especially before the 1880 Betty meets the 1980 Betty in the play's most touching moment.
"Cloud Nine," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m. $7. (714) 997-6812. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.