"No matter what I do, and no matter what I say -- when my time does come, and the fight in me is gone, the last image that will present itself to me, my last thought, as I die...will be of you both," says former judge Lawrence Driver (Michael Cristofer) -- battling with equal doses of stomach cancer, frustration, and parental guilt -- to his unhappy adult children, Ben (David Wilson Barnes) and Amelia (Jennifer Mudge) partway through Stephen Belber's highly affecting new drama Don't Go Gentle, being presented by MCC Theater, at Lucille Lortel Theatre. Isn't that something every child would like to believe?
And yet, while the line is delivered with complete sincerity by Cristofer -- who delivers a performance of staggering intensity and emotional depth throughout this thought-provoking 90-minute work -- one can hardly blame his progeny for having more than their fair share of doubt.
For one thing, Lawrence, a political conservative who seems to have always put ideals and legal philosophy before his family, treats Ben, an unemployed 38-year-old recovering drug addict recently returned from a sojourn in India, with little more than disdain, and the feisty yet doting Amelia with an attitude bordering on indifference.
But, equally importantly, his attentions have lately turned elsewhere -- to Tanya (Angela Lewis), a 30-something lower-class African-American woman, and her 16-year-old son Rasheed (Maxx Brawer). After taking Tanya on, in a seemingly unlikely move, as a pro bono client (she has been too harshly sentenced for smuggling marijuana into prison while visiting her ex-boyfriend), Lawrence has let the pair move into his stately Buffalo home (nicely designed by Robin Vest) and essentially transformed them into his second family.
While the playwright doesn't shy away from the many possible racial and socioeconomic implications of Lawrence's new living arrangement -- especially after Lawrence takes things one step further -- the discussions of his motives are perhaps too blatant, too spelled-out, as if he underestimates his own audience's intelligence in seeing the possible subtext.
What's more important, however, is how deftly Belber explores the ever-shifting dynamics of these five characters -- occasionally even echoing the plays of Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner. Their actions are sometimes predictable, but in the way that people in life, once you get to know them, act predictably.
Under Lucie Tieberghein's assured direction, each character is also given sharp shadings by this accomplished cast. Barnes is terrifying when Ben completely breaks down, and utterly heartbreaking during a final moment of resignation and attempted reconciliation. Mudge and Lewis' roles are perhaps a bit underwritten, but each actress silently, precisely fills in the blanks. Brawer, though perhaps too mature to be believably 16, cuts through the cliches that seep through some of Belber's writing.
Like much of Belber's previous work, Don't Go Gentle feels a draft or two away from fulfilling its dramatic potential, but it remains a deeply felt, well-crafted piece of theater, which is nothing to dismiss in our current landscape.