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Stage Review

Charm of ‘Sick’ lies in the dysfunction

Actors shine in Dohrn play

From left: Rebecca Brooksher, Ryan Spahn, and Michel Gill star in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Zayd Dohrn’s “Sick.’’ From left: Rebecca Brooksher, Ryan Spahn, and Michel Gill star in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Zayd Dohrn’s “Sick.’’ (Jaime Davidson)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2009

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STOCKBRIDGE - It’s easy to see what drew playwright David Auburn, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for “Proof,’’ back to the Berkshire Theatre Festival - where he workshopped his first play 13 years ago - to direct the New England premiere of Zayd Dohrn’s “Sick.’’

“Proof’’ and “Sick’’ overlap intriguingly: Both portray the efforts of a normal person to extricate a near-normal family situation from a dysfunctional one. In both, a borderline nerdy guy, protégé of a genius, tries to win the genius’s arguably even more brilliant daughter over to the enticements of the real world.

But here that girl, Sarah (a luminous Rebecca Brooksher), also has a Gorgon of a mother to get past. Maxine (Lisa Emery), though polished and urbane on the surface, puts the “freak’’ in “neat freak.’’ For 15 years, she has virtually entombed her two children - 19-year-old Sarah has a 17-year-old brother, Davey (Ryan Spahn) - in order to keep their putative “MCS’’ (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) in check. Both she and her husband, Sidney (Michel Gill), a poetry professor, joke that their apartment - furnished along the lines of an operating room, with a massive air filter claiming pride of place - is “rent-controlled, so we can’t ever leave.’’ Word for word, they independently offer up the punch line: “Prisoners in the brownstone of our own good fortune.’’

That is so not what’s going on, as their nonplussed guest, Jim (Greg Keller), one of Sidney’s graduate students, is quick to surmise. Having discoursed charmingly on his favorite smutty Restoration poet, the Earl of Rochester, Sidney warns Jim that the young man has been brought in as the “control’’ - an objective witness to an imminent “surprise.’’

“I’m an inmate here myself,’’ Sidney observes. “Can’t very well study the asylum, now, can I?’’

I won’t spoil the surprise, a curtain closer for Act One, but it’s a doozy. Little wonder that in this witty, original dramedy, Act Two feels anticlimactic. The dramatic tension peters out into a simplified tussle of will-she, won’t-she (make a break for it), as Sarah toys with the idea of setting her own course. Character, so expertly limned earlier, either becomes redundant or is betrayed later on.

We’ve already got Maxine’s number, for instance, and don’t need an awkwardly inserted monologue in which she reveals a bit of back story. Also, Sidney’s transformation from rebellious to chastened and cowed can’t be acted convincingly (highly skilled as Gill is), because it hasn’t been convincingly written.

A sense of late-play deflation aside, this is a brilliant if flawed script, and the cast is spectacular. Emery lends Maxine’s rabid concern just enough warmth to ensure empathy; Gill is so charismatic, you want to sign up for Sidney’s class. We’re basically seeing every interaction through Jim’s eyes, and Keller is sensitive to every nuance.

As Davey, a Tiny Tim-ish wraith who may indeed be perilously sick, Spahn can summon at will the most eruptive cough imaginable (you can’t help wondering what the casting call consisted of). And as the sacrificial victim Sarah, captive to what Oscar Wilde called “the tyranny of the weak,’’ Brooksher displays equal parts vulnerability and backbone. You’ll root for her - and perhaps, like her smother-mother, worry over what her future holds.

SICK

Play by Zayd Dohrn

Directed by: David Auburn. Set, R. Michael Miller. Lights, Dan Kotlowitz. Costumes, Wade Laboissonniere.

At: Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, through Sept. 6. Tickets: $15-44. 413-298-5576, www.berkshiretheatre.org

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