Jenny Maguire and Maggie Siff in Stay
(© Sandra Coudert)
Jenny Maguire and Maggie Siff in Stay
(© Sandra Coudert)
Quirky and original, Lucy Thurber's Stay confirms the talent that the playwright demonstrated a few years back in the equally brilliant Where We're Born. Like that work, this is a world premiere by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. But while her previous play was grounded in a rugged naturalism, Stay sparkles with magic and surrealism. Deftly directed by Jackson Gay, it is brought to vivid life by a fantastic ensemble cast.

Rachel (Maggie Siff) is a successful young writer who has recently taken a visiting professorship at a small, elite college. She's frequently visited by an angel (Jenny Maguire) who serves as her muse and helps channel Rachel's ability to see the stories within other people. This power comes with rules, however -- the most important one is "always be kind."

One of Rachel's students, Julia (Jess Weixler), has a similar gift but not necessarily the self-control to use it responsibly. Julia is obsessed with Rachel, seeing in her a kindred spirit. She attempts to initiate a kind of intimacy that includes but is not limited to the sexual; this both scares and attracts Rachel. Added in to the mix are Julia's boyfriend Tommy (Sam Rosen) and Rachel's brother Billy (Thomas Sadoski), who complicate and temper the dynamic that builds between the women.

Thurber's darkly comic writing is at once whimsical and muscular. Her dialogue crackles, and she can have you laughing hard one moment and emotionally devastated in the next. The story she tells is unpredictable, taking several unexpected turns while remaining dramatically compelling.

The physical and emotional abuse that Rachel and Billy's parents visited upon their children has left them with scarred psyches. Siff presents a nuanced, complex portrait of a woman who feels under attack from all sides; she has a self-destructive impulse that could destroy what she values most. Sadoski exhibits both dangerous rage and a heartbreaking vulnerability in his portrayal. He has a wonderful chemistry with Siff; in one of the play's best scenes, the two of them are eating dinner, cracking up while listening to the siblings' mother talk into Rachel's answering machine.

Weixler isn't afraid to display all of Julia's unlikable qualities, yet she's touching when she reveals her character's fragility. Rosen's depiction of Tommy's obsessive devotion to Julia borders on caricature, but is also quite affecting. Maguire has the difficult task of playing an otherworldly being; her lilting voice and capricious manner help to achieve this.

Gay has coaxed wonderful performances from her cast, and she and her design team have come up with effective, low-budget solutions to some of the script's challenges. Thurber calls for the angel to actually float, a difficult thing to achieve in a space as small as the Rattlestick; instead, set designer Erik Flatmo resourcefully provides numerous windows through which the angel can observe the action, as well as hidden doors that allow her to seemingly walk through walls.

Scott Bolman's lighting, inclusive of twinkling stars, hints at the magical goings-on without getting too fancy. The original music by Aaron Meicht and Daniel Baker's sound design help give the play an appropriately off-kilter feeling.