A family of women fights to scramble back from the brink of despair in Keith Reddin’s “Brutality of Fact,” in which disarming humor is used to gild a distinctly bleak picture of the human condition. In Casey Childs’ restaging of his Camilla Theater production as the opener of Primary Stages’ season, moments of bone-chilling sadness slide with strange smoothness into comic exchanges in which the bitterest of family feeling is played as burlesque.
Scotty Block gives a wry, melancholy performance as the clan’s marked-down matriarch, Val, whose wealth passed away with her husband. Unable to hold her life — and occasionally her thoughts — together, she’s forced to give up her cat and her freedom to live with daughter Jackie (Rebecca Nelson), who has recently found God, with an Old Testament vengeance: She’s a Jehovah’s Witness.
In one of the play’s funniest scenes, Val quietly punctures Jackie’s attempt at door-to-door proselytizing. When Jackie cordially inquires if she can leave a magazine with her, a wary housewife asks, “What is it?” “Hustler,” Val deadpans. She props up her sagging spirit by steadily sparring with Jackie, whose zeal mystifies and annoys Val in equal measure.
Val’s eldest daughter Maggie’s sudden return from parts unknown — Jackie had told Val she was dead, in one of the play’s few false-ringing comic notes — doesn’t offer much comfort. She’s a lacerating drunk, played with a winning air of knockabout desperation by Leslie Lyles in a manner that sometimes recalls Maggie Smith.
The brutal fact that binds the two sisters is a nameless, causeless emptiness Jackie keeps at bay with faith and Maggie with booze. In Nelson’s performance, Jackie gradually loses the contours of Jesus-freak caricature to offer glimpses of the darkness behind the belief.
Reddin doesn’t pin all the play’s cruelties on misguided religion. In the most wrenching scene, Val flees Jackie and pleads with Maggie to take her in. Maggie, about to lose her job, declines, and an elderly mother’s utter aloneness clutches at the heart.
Although the play’s second act sees Maggie slowly opening her heart and tentatively closing the door on alcoholism, the play ends on a note of uncertain promise. But it’s the moments of aching loneliness that linger.
The play has its faults: Reddin too often resorts to jibes when emotion might bring the play deeper texture; only the first of three dream sequences really works; and Jackie’s fiance turns villainous rather too neatly.
But “Brutality of Fact,” for all its reliance on sharp comedy, is powerfully moving in its tender examination of a sad perplexity: how hard it is to take care of one another when we can barely take care of ourselves.