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Two lucid looks at wounded minds

June Lewin stars as Rima (above) in "Sailing Down the Amazon" and as the mother in "Haiku." (D'Arcy Marsh)

"Sailing Down the Amazon" takes place on the deck of a cruise ship, "Haiku" in an unremarkable living room, but both these one-act plays explore a more mysterious and sometimes disturbing landscape: the interiors of two troubled minds. In a sensitively directed production by Victoria Marsh at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, which will move to Gloucester's West End Theatre for one weekend, the two works combine to create an evening of small but significant revelations.

Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro wrote "Amazon" after a friend, diagnosed with Alzheimer's, booked a cruise down the Amazon instead of an MRI. The play's sole character, an aging actress named Rima, at first seems unimpaired; only gradually, as she repeats a sentence unawares or explodes in a burst of irrational anger, do we begin to understand that she already is not quite who she was.

What's heartbreaking is that she knows it, too. She is still lucid enough to recognize that she's not always lucid. She is also still enough of an actress to try to hide that knowledge.

June Lewin delivers Rima's monologue with delicacy and flair, slowly building a distinctive portrait of a prickly, intelligent, and sometimes exasperating woman at a dreadful point in her life. Rima may not always be likable -- she's too self-centered and sometimes obliviously cruel for that -- but she does command our attention and, ultimately, our empathy.

Rima tells her story not just to us but to a companion in a deck chair, amusingly represented only by a colorful scarf draped in the form of a dress. A second deck chair with beach towel and straw hat, we soon realize, holds Rima's sleeping husband; his invisible presence doesn't stop her from complaining about him, or from talking about her cozy relationship with her longtime acting partner, Marcus.

It's a little gimmicky, but it works -- particularly because Rima is the most vivid person she knows. She has always lived at center stage; it makes sense that, next to her, everyone else is invisible. And her solitude only deepens the poignancy of our recognition that, too soon, she will become invisible to herself, too.

For "Haiku," Lisa Pegnato's simple, effective cruise-ship set -- the deck chairs, a table with a couple of umbrella-garnished drinks -- gives way to an equally simple living room, evoked by a couple of chairs and a low cabinet full of pill bottles. The pills are for Louise, a middle-aged woman who bangs her head repetitively and speaks only in short, seemingly disjointed phrases.

Kate Snodgrass's dialogue never names Louise's condition, but a program note about autism confirms the most likely diagnosis. What matters in this haunting story, however, is not the particulars of an illness but the ways in which it has bound a family together and torn it apart.

"Haiku" focuses on a rare visit home by Louise's older sister, Billie. Their mother has summoned Billie to witness something incredible: Louise is, the mother insists, starting to communicate and connect with the world as never before. Billie finds that hard to believe.

What's remarkable about "Haiku," which won an award from the Actors Theatre of Louisville and has been performed around the world as well as on film, is that it keeps persuading us to change our view. Is the mother fooling herself? Or is Billie too scarred by growing up with a damaged sibling to be able to see that she's changed? In a slowly unfolding conversation, interspersed with brief flashbacks to the girls' painful childhood, Snodgrass deftly keeps us wondering.

Lewin, as the weary but hopeful mother, plays powerfully opposite Emily Sinagra's tightly wound Billie, who starts out seeming cold but slowly reveals the layers of pain and dashed hopes that have made her who she is. As Louise, Kippy Goldfarb gives a nuanced and complex performance. Louise's symptoms are sometimes extreme, but Goldfarb's portrayal of them never feels excessive, and she creates a sense of mysterious inner life that gives Louise, for all her damage, a real dimension and depth.

Both Louise and Rima are trapped in wounded minds. But both, thanks to careful writing and skillful acting, find a way to let us in.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at