Her focus is on the Timmons family: Laura (Kittson O'Neill), husband David (James Patrick Earley), and young daughters Jean (Jenny Vallancourt) and Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie). The Timmons unit is thrown off balance, because Tommy Nably (symbolically never seen) has moved back into the neighborhood after being in prison for manslaughter. Some years earlier, he'd killed a seven-year-old neighbor under circumstances which playwright Gregory keeps vague (as she does about a number of other elements). Laura is so disoriented by the turn of affairs, she's taken to pouring generous alcoholic drinks for herself. She's not only worried about Jean and Nancy, but she's ticked that David has set the town buzzing by giving the returned ex-con a blue-collar job.
Nancy and Jean, who's got a sizable dose of Louisa May Alcott's Jo March in her, are less hot under the Catholic school-uniform collar than their parents about the Nably boy. Nevertheless, the girls are a-twitter. They're even keeping a diary about his motorcyclist comings-and-goings, because they've gotten it into their heads he was mistakenly imprisoned. What's more, Jean has a nagging memory of seeing the dreaded Tommy, whom she and Nancy are surreptitiously befriending, in the Timmons house at some time in the distant past and in a context that confuses her. This is despite Laura's insistence that neither Tommy nor his red-headed mother have ever entered the Timmons' claustrophobic middle-class domicile. The snooping Jean also doesn't buy David's keep-him-off-the-streets explanation for hiring Tommy, and she's determined to discover the real cause.
Gregory's title is, of course, calculatedly evocative and provocative. The family under scrutiny is experiencing its trial by figurative fire during the same month that the 1962 Cuban missile crisis occurred. And it presented the entire country with a menace on a wider scale than the one immediately terrorizing the Timmonses. Although Gregory does show the besieged four intently watching and listening to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's warning speech, she intends the episode more as metaphor than as the pivotal event her title suggests it's going to be.
She carefully arranges it so that when the October 22, 1962 threat lessens, Laura's "Thank God, that mess is over" registers as heavily ironic. What's not over is the mess the Timmons' are mired in as a result of Laura's and David's cumulative past-history denials. Incidentally, Laura has already told Jean, "When you love someone, you have to forget things." That claim, Gregory gravely hints, is not a sure-fire formula for success. Certainly not after Jean has had an over-the-top recovered-memory outburst during which she recalls two long-ago Tommy Nably appearances in the Timmons household.
The contents of Jean's suspiciously convenient recollection won't be revealed here, but they point to Gregory's structural drawbacks. From the outset, she introduces situations and character traits about which she's careless. For instance, she initially gives Laura a drinking problem but drops it. She implies that the Timmons' marriage has been in big trouble before Tommy Nably's reappearance but shies away from any substantial probing. In the play's final minutes and as if she's just remembered she has a train to catch, she airs the suppressed truths in a melodramatic and even blood-smeared tumble.
None of this undercuts the more-than-adequate contributions of the cast, whom Matthew Arbour directs intelligently. In a play where the youngsters, though typically adolescent in behavior, are wiser than their parents, Vallancourt does extremely well with perplexed Jenny's plight. As Nancy, Kapanjie occasionally looks as if she's about to shout "Look at me, I'm acting," but the stage debutante has her moments. Since the play's problems are built into the David and Laura script threads, Earley and O'Neill, particularly, are unfairly challenged. Yet, for the most part they prevail.
That can't ultimately be said for Gregory, who wanted to use one-time frightening headlines to say something new about the dysfunctional American family, but resorted to too many old-fashioned methods of saying it.