The tragedy in "The Dead Eye Boy" is so preordained that there's no chance for surprise or hope, and it's largely a matter of how director Anthony Meindl creates tension while we wait for the inevitable. Caught in this constricting dramatic vise, Meindl demonstrates darkly empathetic understanding of shattered individuals.

The tragedy in “The Dead Eye Boy” is so preordained that there’s no chance for surprise or hope, and it’s largely a matter of how director Anthony Meindl creates tension while we wait for the inevitable. Caught in this constricting dramatic vise, Meindl demonstrates the darkly empathetic understanding of shattered individuals he showed in helming “Dogs Barking.”

Angus MacLachlan’s play is flawed and melodramatic, with an unsatisfying climax, but Meindl slams past plot implausibilities and perceptively illuminates the hatred, sexual ambiguity and desperation that drive people to destroy each other.

Destruction is broadcasted immediately when upbeat, good-humored Billy (Jonathan Kehoe) proposes to fellow drug addict Shirley (Lindsay Frame) and she counters with “it’s your funeral.” Billy’s graphically depicted sexual attraction is strong enough to embroil him in a nightmare world that includes Shirley’s murderously hostile adolescent son Soren (Paul Hovermale). Soren, the result of his mother’s rape, was born with a facial deformity suffered in childbirth, and his presence forces Shirley to remember and relive the trauma she suffered at 14.

Billy claims to love Shirley, no matter how abrasive and insane her behavior, and the script’s insistence on his unwavering devotion becomes increasingly hard to accept. Frame pounces on the part with such fiery determination that she keeps us involved. She successfully projects a jarring attitude toward her son, part loathing and part incestuous attraction. But the role lacks shading, and a monologue during which she makes a bid for sympathy doesn’t provide enough balance to make us care if she demolishes her demons.

As the irrevocably damaged Soren, Hovermale is believably boyish and brutal at the same time, capable of saying that when he learns to drive, “I’ll run over dogs, squirrels, little kids,” yet equally convincing when he cowers in a corner after being berated for taking off with his stepfather’s truck.

Like Frame’s, Hovermale’s performance is too often a concept, part of a schematic, predictable pattern. The character of Billy, however, is perceptively written by MacLachlan. Kehoe, an astonishing actor, taps into every nuance. Warm, open, oddly innocent despite a lifetime of prison and drug abuse, Kehoe’s Billy tries to be a dad to Soren and expresses touching bewilderment when his efforts are rejected and the boy viciously bites his finger to the bone. Kehoe attains Willy Loman stature when he makes a speech selling vacuum cleaners, plastering on a wide, sickly smile and saying hopefully, “The Rainbrite not only vacuums — it cleans the air too!”

Esben Melbye’s claustrophobic room and Younwha Kong’s lighting capture the trashy, poverty-plagued existence of the characters, although Sarah Huddleston’s generally effective sound could heighten impact by emphasizing background voices and noises during Billy’s AA monologue. Jamieson K. Price’s fight choreography takes its cue from Meindl’s kick-butt direction, punching across the kind of drug-instigated rage that can never be reduced or tamed.

The Dead Eye Boy

MetaTheater Co.; 45 seats; $20 top

Production

A MetaTheater Co. presentation of a play in one act by Angus MacLachlan. Directed by Anthony Meindl.

Creative

Sets, Esben Melbye; lighting, Younwha Kong; sound, Sarah Huddleston; production stage manager, Andra Eggleston. Opened and reviewed Oct. 10, 2003; closes Nov. 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Shirley-Diane - Lindsay Frame Billy - Jonathan Kehoe Soren - Paul Hovermale
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