"Gary," the new play by Melinda Lopez, blasts open with a raw burst of crashing rock. It's loud, it's painful, and it's a jarringly appropriate overture to this dark illumination of one dysfunctional family's most wrenching secrets.
Said family resides in Gary, Indiana, the source of the play's title and of its characters' trapped sense of despair. That opening number, though, is played as if we're a concert audience in Boston for a band called Gary, fronted by the oldest sibling of the family, so already we know that at least one of them has made it out. At the play's opening performance Saturday in the black box of the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, it was hard to glean much else from the lyrics of that song, because the fuzzy guitars and pounding drums obliterated most of them.
At the song's end, the concert lights flash, then go black. A spotlight shows us a slowly opening door, and the young man who's just been singing is peering tentatively through the gap. "Annie? Annie? Are you there?" Another blackout.
Next we see him with his brother and sister, playing video games, eating chips, getting high, and arguing sporadically over music, girlfriends, and their absent father. Gradually we settle into the rhythm of their teenage night and get to know them a little: Tommy, the rough but tender older brother; Annie, the wry and guarded little sister; and Mark, the gawky younger brother. We meet their mother, Lenore, looking exhausted in her leopard-print nylon robe, but she's only a brief intrusion into this grungy rec-room habitat.
So "Gary" moves on through its brief 70-minute arc, with more blackouts, more rock songs (with lyrics mostly by Lopez and music by Chicago composer Rick Sims), and an accumulating sense that something is very, very wrong. There's an accusation of rape and the inevitable fallout, some confusion, some revelation, and some fascinatingly conflicted moments of love and hatred so tangled together they feel like a new emotion entirely. The ground shifts beneath our feet; what we and the characters thought we knew cracks and rearranges itself into a startling but inevitable new shape. What might have seemed at first a fairly familiar exploration of an abusive father flowers into something more complicated, focusing not so much on that absent enigma as on the troubling ripples he's left behind.
This is tricky stuff, with complex rhythms flowing beneath the surface, and Lopez handles it with assurance and power. Even a scene that at first feels too lyrical and "writerly" - Annie reminiscing to her best friend, Cassie, about a childhood supper of blueberry pancakes - turns out to have a central bearing on the nasty mystery at the story's heart. It could probably stand a little pruning anyway, but in retrospect we see why it has to have the disconcerting weight that Lopez places on it.
Boston Playwrights' Theatre gives Lopez, a star alumna of the playwriting program at Boston University who has gone on to see her "Sonia Flew" produced around the country, a hard-hitting and tightly directed staging for this new work. Nael Nacer is particularly effective as Tommy, with a mix of sweetness and cruelty that twists sinuously along with the wrenching turns of the story, but he's well matched by Elise Manning's wiry Annie and Karl Baker Olson's painfully awkward Mark. Adrianne Krstansky, as Lenore, and Molly Schreiber, as Cassie, create nuance and depth in supporting roles.
"Gary" is not easy, either in its theme or in its structure, and it's so densely packed into its tight frame that you may at first wonder whether it could have benefited from being allowed to breathe a little. Ulitmately, though, the distillation of pain and love into the smallest possible space feels like just what these characters need. Sometimes the only way to say it all is in a brief, explosive spasm of screaming rock.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.