'The Sweepers' at ICT in Long Beach

For those who prefer their theater thematically arcane, John C. Picardi's "The Sweepers," now at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, may seem annoyingly accessible. Indeed, the play opens with a character kneeling before a statue of the Blessed Virgin and uttering a blatantly expository prayer -- a trite theatrical device that seems to bode ill for what is to follow.

Yet suspend your judgment awhile and you will be richly rewarded. Despite that clunky opening and a few subsequent segues into the obvious, Picardi's comedy-drama -- the first in a planned 10-play cycle about the Italian American experience -- has plenty of laughs along with a gut-wrenching emotional wallop.

The play is set in an Italian neighborhood in 1945 North Boston, where three women, friends since girlhood, struggle with various fears and crises brought on by the war. Bright, bustling Mary DeGrazia (Valerie Perri) has a husband and son fighting in the Pacific. Appropriately named Dotty Larnino (Donna Ponterotto) has a shellshocked husband in the nearby VA hospital and a son overseas. Sultry, willful Bella Cichinelli (Susan Giosa) doesn't bear the same burden of uncertainty, at least on the surface.

Classified 4-F because of a heart murmur, Bella's son Sonny (Jamie Hobert) is a new lawyer who has recently landed a prestigious position, not to mention the boss' daughter, Karen Foletti (Danielle Vernengo).

Blond and WASP-y looking, Karen is actually Italian and Catholic -- two incontrovertible prerequisites for Sonny's mate. However, Karen's a well-connected, sophisticated Wellesley girl whose father scrapped his way out of poverty to become a wealthy attorney. The question is, will the thoroughly Americanized Karen honor tradition and hang her post-wedding bedsheet out the window as proof of her "purity"?

Picardi exploits that premise a trifle exhaustively, as Bella's meddling pals egg her on to a critical confrontation with her new daughter-in-law. Of course, at the crux of the matter is the gaping divide between the archaic, Old World traditions of the three older women and the modern notions of Sonny and Karen.

Under that outwardly comedic clash, deeper conflicts run. Deserted by her alcoholic Irish husband when Sonny was just a boy, Bella fears another devastating abandonment -- an abiding terror that has long since driven her to covert and desperate ends. Shocking revelations are in store as Picardi's deceptively small-scaled piece escalates into tragedy.

Matthew D. Egan's superlative set, Bill Georges' excellent lighting and sound, and Kim DeShazo's scrupulously detailed costumes keenly evoke this working-class Boston neighborhood -- a honeycomb of brick tenements surrounded by dusty concrete that these dedicated domestic "sweepers" struggle to keep clean.

As for the actors, they invest their vivid, flawed characters with aching truth and clarity. Soundly supported by her uniformly superb cast, director caryn desai wisely embraces the operatic broadness of her material. Her expansive staging brims with a warmth that will touch your heart.