The play's action is divided between two families linked by a marriage marked by savage domestic violence. As the play opens we see Jake (Alessandro Nivola) returning in desperation to his childhood home after brutally beating his wife Beth (Marin Ireland), whom he thinks he has killed. In reality, his assault has left her with brain damage and forced her back into the rough care of her own family.
The play's action isn't tidy or pat; it navigates a serpentine path through several varieties of love from the pained and frustrated to the explosive and damaging. Under a veneer of sometimes sardonic humor, there are dark notes of trouble in every connection, whether through hints of incestuous desire between siblings or displays of a choking controlling enmeshment between parent and offspring. What's more important than the specifics of its plot points is the play's visceral effect, as we recognize the seeds of truthful human behavior in even the most exaggeratedly comic or heartless interactions.
However, Shepard has written a much more interesting family for Beth than for Jake, an imbalance that is magnified in this production. The production's most vivid central performance is by Ireland, who triumphs over the role's essential challenge to believably convey the sometimes broken, struggled speech of the character's brain damage. What's more, she is able to strongly render the vitality of an interior life and to suggest who the character was before the assault. Whether in a bald moment of simple, devastating truth-telling with her father Baylor (Keith Carradine), or while raging at the well-meaning attention of her brother Mike (Frank Whaley), or climbing atop her brother-in-law Frankie (Josh Hamilton) with carnal intent, Ireland is always riveting.
Ireland is well matched by Carradine and Laurie Metcalf, as Beth's mom. Both actors are blazingly brilliant at playing the truthful emotions of the long-enmeshed characters, and prove to be at ease with the distinct musicality of Shepard's dialogue.
By contrast, while Nivola ably conveys Jake's wounded, bottomless need for love beneath a rough exterior, most of his explosive outbursts are not convincing. Maggie Siff, as Jake's sister Sally, is generally terrific and invests a long painful monologue with deep powerfully conveyed feeling, but her characterization doesn't feel genuinely rural. As their mother, Lorraine, Karen Young (who played Sally in 1985) does beautifully by her most vulnerable scene in the final act. But a good deal of her preceding work seems artificial.