Playwright: Peter Nichols. At: Stage Left at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-973-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $20-$27 . Runs through: Feb. 16
Brian and Sheila live in a cozy two-story house with a flea-infested cat, a pair of parakeets, a bowl of fish and veritable groves of potted plants. Their home is also occupied by a severely disabled 10-year-old daughter. Her name is Josephine, but her sire and dame have taken to calling her "Joe Egg," the British slang equivalent to our "bump on a log" ( as in "sitting there, doing nothing, like a..." ).
In a thriving urban center in 2014, these unlucky progenitors would have an abundance of social-service counselors and agencies to assist them in the care of an invalid whose almost nonexistent brain activity renders her barely more functionalperhaps even lessthan the flora and fauna. In the England of 1967, however, the post-war industrial community of Bristol is bereft of conveniences we take for granted ( private-residential telephones, for example ). Brian is a Sunday painter; Sheila putters around with an amateur theater group; and well-meaning friends and meddlesome relatives offer fatuous advice, but nothing can alleviate the marital stress engendered by guilt, uncertainty and a lifestyle wholly focused on a child who will never grow to be an adult.
Harrowing tales of heroic couples dealing with medical disasters are commonplace nowadays, but the grim humor Peter Nichols invokes in portraying his charactersparticularly, his decision to display wee Joe in all her vegetative torpor onstageboth shocked and repelled audiences still recovering from news photographs of thalidomide-afflicted infants ( one of Brian's pictures, entitled "The Thalidomide Kid," depicts a gunslinger with stunted limbs riding a wheelchair ). Another period motif is the tendency of Nichols' dramatis personae to address us directly, confiding in us the secrets that they cannot share with their alleged intimates.
These shifts in dimension are difficult to conveyindeed, may present a greater challenge than the play's disturbing subject matterbut under Greg Werstler's precision direction, we soon come to accept the boundaries of Nichols' narrative structure. Easing us into sympathy for this suffering family is Stage Left's tightly integrated ensemble, led by Vance Smith and Kendra Thulin as the beleaguered parents, and featuring uncaricatured performances by Brian Plocharczyk and Annie Prichard as shallow neighbors Freddie and Pam, Marssie Mencotti as doting grandma Grace and the praiseworthy Piper Bailey, who never betrays the illusion of Joe's restricted capabilities by so much as an unscripted sniff or wriggle.