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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Bruce Norris. At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-728-7529;; $25-$30. Runs through: Jan. 27

After a playwright wins the Pulitzer for a drama crafted in the classic tradition, it's easy to forget that they once wrote in less lofty modes. (Compare Tracy Letts' epic August: Osage County with his brutal Killer Joe.) Audiences expecting this early play by Bruce Norris to deliver the historical footnotes and social commentary of the award-winning Clybourne Park will have to look hard to find them in this lesson on the pitfalls of writing on commission for a pre-cast ensemble—in this case, the Steppenwolf company circa 2002.

Our story is set in 1972, a few days after Army wife Carla Larson has received word that her husband has been killed in Vietnam. All the bereft spouse wants is solitude to sort out her mixed feelings about the loss of her abusive partner, but instead she is beset by her pious mother-in-law, her withdrawn preteen son and a hoard of well-wishing "vampires and vultures." There is nothing unusual about this situation: military marriages are frequently troubled, soldiers' sons often display a morbid fascination with wartime atrocities, and we have all encountered civilians who revel in sentimental patriotism.

Into this welter of family tension comes a stranger—a disabled GI whose laconic temperament allows him to shift allegiances with never a pause or stumble—and suddenly the play likewise shifts into Albee/Pinter mode. Is Cpl. Purdy an angel of life, come for a second annunciation? Is he an angel of death, and if so, what is the target of his mission? Then again, could he be an everyday stalker, preying on vulnerable women? Theatergoers uninterested in these questions may also track the intricate network of catch-phrases that wax and wane in their significance as the plot demands (the old "Will I be able to play the piano?" joke, for example, which becomes a bonding password for Purdy and Carla).

This atmosphere of unseen menace may have been suited perfectly to Laurie Metcalf's heebie-jeebie mannerisms, but the close quarters of the Redtwist storefront dictates an intimacy that renders Norris' enigmatic symbolism more annoying than threatening, especially since Redtwist company member KC Karen Hill makes Carla, not a congenital neurotic, but a victim of crisis, exacerbated by the bullying of alleged comforters whose attentions make a pervert offering escape, while still a pervert, look downright attractive by comparison. When we care about a character, authorial cleverness can do nothing but get in the way.

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