Playwright: Erik Gernand. At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 1-773-728-7529; www.redtwist.org; $25-$30. Runs through: Sept. 1
Jacob is brighter than his parents and thinks he's better than they are, taunting them with an impressive and abusive vocabulary. Almost 19 and a gifted writer, he's a problem kid who attempted suicide at 15 and has been thrown out of college. He seethes with hostility, suspicion and resentment and exhibits concern only for his 13-year-old brother, Charlie.
Jacob's parents, at wits' end, have given him lots of ammunition. Tom, a cop, and Nancy, a high school principal, divorced over his cheating and her drinking, although both seem past those problems now. But Jacob bought a gun (legally) and was dismissed from college for writing an uber-violent play and told a girlfriend his play would become reality on his birthday, just weeks away. Everyone's thinking "Virginia Tech." What to do? Tom is prone to violence himself while Nancy tries tough love but usually yields to Jacob's imploring.
Erik Gernand's intelligent play explores how one's nearest and dearest react when they recognize someone they love has entered a terrifying dark place. With virtually every mass killing, people add up the warning signs only after the fact, and The Beautiful Dark makes one understand how difficult it can be to recognizeand deal withwarning signs, especially within a nuclear family cocoon.
This admirable and thoughtful world premiere has been directed by Josh Altman, whose work I would praise even without a shared school tie (Tufts University, go Jumbos!). Altman has shaped edgy and committed performances from Aaron Kirby and Jacqueline Grandt as Jacob and Nancy, around whom the play revolves. One doesn't doubt their intense mother-son relationship for a moment. Jacob Bond has chops as kid bro Charlie. Still in high school, he's a young actor to watch. Tommy Lee Johnston as cop/dad Tom brings substance to an underwritten role. Tiffany Williams and Scott Olson capably complete the cast in plot-driven roles (especially Williams with only one scene). Altman and company maintain the play's tension as Gernand ups the ante.
The Beautiful Dark is a worthy play but Gernand can strengthen it. The hero is Mom/Nancy, but Jacob is the charismatic figure, and domestic problems alone don't explain him (especially since we never see those problems). I know kids of alcoholics who turned out fine; ditto children of divorce (myself among them). Gernand must avoid easy superficiality and dig deeper, and also enlarge the roles of Tom and Charlie.
The narrow scenic design extends the full length of the theater and uses the long real walls as the set walls. Unfortunately, people seated against the walls can't see what's going on down the row on the same side. Redtwist enjoys altering stage configurations but this one is not so good.