Sara Surrey and Marin Ireland in Where We're Born(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Sara Surrey and Marin Ireland in Where We're Born
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Although there's no indication in Lucy Thurber's impressive program biography that she's related to James Thurber, I left her Where We're Born thinking of the famous Thurber cartoon in which a meek-looking man approaching home abruptly becomes aware that the sprawling Victorian domicile has turned into his wife in larger-than-life form. Is the emerging dramatist, in fact, a Thurber family member, and has something in her genetic inheritance predisposed her to present the other side of Thurber's New Yorker sight gag about strong women and the men who cower before them?

Even if Lucy Thurber isn't related to her namesake, she's written a play in which, at one point, two women appear to have taken control of a home while the clueless men in their immediate vicinity sit on the front steps, boy-talking. The house, cleverly designed by Takeshi Kata, sits on the cramped Rattlestick Theatre stage as if floating in a vast gray nowhere -- not a bad metaphor for the whereabouts of the five characters who come and go through the missing door on the downstage side, trying to give meaning to their existence. (The production has helpful lighting by Matthew Richards and helpful sound by Fitz Patton.)

The two women, who have only recently fallen into a sexual relationship, are Lily (Marin Ireland), a Smith freshman in an unnamed New England industrial town on a fall break, and Franky (Sara Surrey), a waitress who feels stuck and is therefore contemplating marriage to the man with whom she's sharing the isolated quarters. The three men are Tony (Thomas Sadoski), Franky's cheating but loving boyfriend and Lily's protective cousin; Drew (Patch Darragh), a local lad who hides his high IQ under a bushel in order to get along with the fellas; and Vin (Jason Pugatch), a fellow whose sole concern is protecting his livelihood from minority immigrants.

What Thurber seems to be implying about Lily (who jokes about the lesbian population at Smith) and the hard-edged but vulnerable Franky is that it makes sense for women to seek out each other for romance and sexual gratification when the men around them are only intersted in keeping up their masculine image while wasting time in beer drinking and horseplay. This certainly seems a legitimate view in a post-feminist period when the battle cry "We're all the same" is once again swinging toward "We're not all the same."

The 19-year-old Lily finds it difficult to throw off hometown ties and appears to be losing control of herself. She's another in the long line of dramatic and literary females on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her self-destructive behavior threatens to destroy the two people she cares most about: 23-year-old Franky, on whom she's had a crush since she was 15, and Tony, who has selflessly raised her in place of what apparently are absentee parents. Lashing out in frustration, Lily makes requited plays for both Franky and Tony and then is unable to keep from blurting out her transgressions at the worst possible time.

The maelstrom of betrayals that may ruin not only Lily's sense of herself but also any hope of a promising future for Tony and Franky may sound like an excessively melodramatic turn of events, but let's give Thurber and her work the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps a young woman like Lily, who was picked on throughout her childhood for being unusually bright, would turn herself into a human chainsaw upon realizing that she was too big for her origins and uncertain of how to move on.

Tom Sadoski and Sara Surrey in Where We're Born(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Tom Sadoski and Sara Surrey in Where We're Born
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Moreover, Thurber writes extremely well, exhibiting a mastery of dialogue and scene construction. I can't say that I particularly cared for her last Rattlestick offering, Killers and Other Family; the title alone has an off-putting ironic cuteness. But in Where We're Born, which also could be called Killers and Other Family, she proves that she's a playwright to watch. Everything that comes out of her characters' mouths is convincing; every halting, guarded, unedited remark has the piercing ring of authenticity. The same can be said for many of the play's situations. Lily is a loose cannon at one moment but at another, when discovered reading a schoolbook, she's convincing as the scholar she's said to be. When Tony admits his dalliances to Lily and then argues with her about why he and she should be married, it's a lovely, unexpected love scene.

When Lily confronts Drew about his reluctance to refine his education in what is really a tangential encounter, Thurber shows how adept she is at capturing telling nuances. Drew has told Lily that he's not interested in the books she's reading and she replies, "You're terrified of it. You and everybody in the house. Afraid of words on a page." He says, "Maybe I'm not afraid of it. Maybe I just don't like it." She can't get him to concede his interest and, knowing what she's facing, she allows the subject to drop after a final "I don't believe you." It's an astonishingly well-observed exchange in a play that's stocked with them.

The actors, who've been directed with a startlingly sure hand by Will (Omnium Gatherum) Frears, don't let Thurber down. Marin Ireland was less than perfect in Bill Irwin's recent Harlequin Studies, wherein she had to play what amounted to French farce, but she had the sleekness of technique to work smoothly opposite Kathleen Chalfant in Marguerite Duras's Savannah Bay last season. Here, she switches from stylized thesping to naturalism as easily as switching on a light. Her Lily is a good-looking, brainy girl whose attributes bring none of the solace and assurance that other people automatically assume she must have.

Sara Surrey as Franky avers that she's always known she's pretty but is aware that the saying "pretty is as pretty does" is wide of the mark. Her performance exudes the confidence of a woman who needs to appear sure in order to survive. Thomas Sadoski's Tony, a direct guy on the surface, has his complexities, too; the actor is especially adroit at conveying the character's quick-to-anger nature. (Fight director Brent Langdon has staged a couple of frighteningly real dust-ups.) Patch Darragh, who looks like every tough guy's uncertain tagalong pal, has no problem signaling the pain that Drew's intelligence gives him in a place where intelligence isn't a valued commodity; he's Will Hunting with only Lily's good will behind him. Jason Pugatch spends most of his time as Vin shooting the stagnant breeze, but when he has to talk about being a "God damn American," he neatly lets the character's barely veiled fury fly.

In this play, Lucy Thurber suggests that what we're born with has an indisputable impact on what we become. She and her colleagues were obviously born with talent, and it's nice to see it displayed so generously here.