Haunted by her past, a woman risks everything to claw her way to redemption in Linda McLean's "strangers, babies."
An elegant and elliptical drama that revels in the same visceral power as McLean's "Any Given Day," which scored a hit for Magic Theatre in its American premiere last year, "strangers" sucks you in from the first fleeting flash of insight. A solar system of men revolve around this woman, the battered but unbowed May, but the real gravitational force in her soul is the pull of new life. In five blistering scenes that unfold like a whodunit, May reaches for the elusive possibility of hope, even salvation.
The Scottish playwright has a gift for jagged narratives that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The enigma of May (a riveting Danielle Levin) only deepens throughout the course of this blistering 90-minute odyssey, beautifully directed by Jon Tracy in its regional premiere running at Berkeley's Shotgun Players through Nov. 17.
The mystery began 20 years ago when three little children, one of them May, romped into a neighborhood park and changed their lives forever. Now May is all grown up and she lives next to another such park but can never shake the terror of what happened that day. She must live with the aftershocks of a single afternoon for the rest of her days.
May is an obsessive bird-watcher compelled to tend to baby birds with broken wings despite the admonishment of her husband (Cole Alexander Smith). She insists on visiting her dying father (a harrowing turn by Richard Louis James) despite his torrent of verbal abuse. She reaches out to her bullying brother (Joe Estlack) even though she knows he will push her away. Hard.
McLean has a genius for revealing her back story in sly bits and pieces that keep us guessing and hanging on every little shard of truth that sneaks by before you can take a breath. While some playwrights today hide behind short, vague scenes, the Glasgow-born writer never sacrifices depth in her quest for ambiguity. She's got such a stark, penetrating voice that you are willing to go wherever she dares to lead. Theatergoers should rejoice that she is also returning to the Magic next year with the world premiere of "Every Five Minutes."
The playwright dazzles with her ruthlessness with language, the way she captures the poetry of brutality, and her kaleidoscopic view of human nature. The writing here is spare, almost mathematically precise, and entire lifetimes of bitterness and resentment are sculpted in a few minutes.
Sensitively portrayed by Levin, who radiates vulnerability as well as rage, May is an everywoman whose destiny has been blighted by a single action decades ago. The monstrosity of what lies in her past is matched by the intensity of her desire to begin anew, somehow. It's impossible not to feel for her plight but also to fear her a little, especially in the nerve-racking final scene, which involves a toddler and a man (a deft Tim Kniffin) just doing his duty.
Tracy, who also directed the unforgettable "Any Given Day," keeps the tension cranked at unbearable levels. One cryptic scene bleeds into another on Nina Ball's eerie set, a ghostly limbo of glowing white walls, as the cycle of birth and death reveals some of its savagery. The play's final scene is both bleak and magical, and it's that startling combination of emotional states that makes McLean's work so piercing.
In the end, the full scope of May's guilt is unknowable, perhaps even to herself, but that never diminishes the sting of the way she looks at "strangers, babies."
By Linda McLean, presented by Shotgun Players
Through: Nov. 17
Where: Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$35, 510-841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org