The human heart’s capacity to get past the atrocious sins of others in order to grant forgiveness is bracingly dramatized in stage and TV scribe David Schulner’s world premiere, packing more character tension into a mere 75 minutes than many another work twice its length. Helmer Matt Shakman unerringly steers a family ensemble — the core of four and one outsider — into stinging emotional reality, another solid hit for the ever-gutsy Black Dahlia company.

A long prison term for father Sam (Morlan Higgins), years of therapy for daughter Jill (Emily Bergl) and Sam’s born-again conversion to Christ and AA have led to a fragile state of equilibrium, characterized by lots of phone calls and even more geographical distance. Broker of the truce has been stepmother and recovery companion Penny (Lee Garlington), who manages everyone’s baggage by turning away from it toward tomorrow. Don’t ask; don’t tell.

Now Jill has healed sufficiently to find and accept Mr. Right, aka gentle Ben (Peter Smith). He’s an architect with a passion for renovating houses, but his inaugural visit to the in-laws-to-be, and his discovery of what may be profound emotional rot within its walls, offers a mindblowing home-wrecking challenge. How can she have forgiven that man? How can she and Ben bring kids into this family circle?

It seems rather odd for Jill to have chosen the final minutes of their fateful car trip to tell Ben all about her and Sam’s past, and rather too convenient for the playwright to have assigned Penny her own prepubescent daughter (Kendall Toole) with the same name, and potential for Sam’s temptation, as daughter #1. But the skillful layering of these situations is far more impressive than the contrivances are problematic.

Group attempts to talk about the weather or the new house — anything other than religion, politics or Topic A — fail to gain traction as the ominous subtext keeps peeping out like termites from wood. Two-handed confrontations vibrate with reality, as characters’ efforts to maintain politeness insistently give way to their need to know and take a stand.

In the manner of the best drama, everyone has the same desires, in this case, it’s to ensure Jill’s happiness and bring each other to a tenable state of normalcy. Yet the obstacles to achieving these goals, and the five characters’ differing motivations, lock the characters into a stately dance of mistrust and dread.

Schulner’s ear for the humor in missed cues means that the pain of forgiveness is often memorably funny as well. Challenged by the Jewish Ben to explain how Jesus forgave him, Sam replies: “He saved my life, Ben. And you can roll your eyes. I used to, and I know your people tune out whenever Jesus gets mentioned.”

“My people?” hisses the fiance, ready to explode.

Sam’s simple response, “Artists!” brings down the house.

It’s difficult to overpraise these performances, singly or together, and the direction orchestrating them. One remembers faces. Higgins wears Sam’s pain like a clenched fist, perfectly matched with Garlington’s half-smile connoting no-nonsense practical nursing. Meanwhile, Smiths’ face is a mirror in which we can read every whiplash of the roller coaster on which he unexpectedly finds himself.

Asked to portray the stepsister, as well as (in flashbacks) Jill herself, Toole finds just enough character differentiation to distinguish them while maintaining the similarities that plot and theme require. (Jillian won’t eat, Jill’s anorexia having been a DNA marker for the abuse. Could it be recurring?) Toole is a gem.

In the most difficult role by far, Bergl triumphantly walks the minefields between victimhood and selfhood, and between longing for Ben and fiercely protecting the independence she’s worked so hard to win. Her journey toward transcendence persuades us of the proverbial divinity in forgiveness, pulling Schulner’s play into territory deeper and more resonant than a simple sexual abuse treatise.

The black rear wall of Kurt Boetcher’s minimalist set from time to time reveals the bedroom in which all the heartbreak began. Its full of details — stuffed animals and furniture with a wooden dollhouse on a shelf, windows alternately lit and shaded. That metaphorical structure, sitting placidly in that upstage black box of pain, may take your breath away.


Black Dahlia Theater, Los Angeles; 30 seats; $25 top

  • Production: A Black Dahlia Theater production of a play in one act by David Schulner. Directed by Matt Shakman.
  • Crew: Sets, Kurt Boetcher; costumes, E.B. Brooks; lighting, Heather Graff & Richard Peterson; sound, Joel Spence; production stage manager, Jennifer Bendik. Opened, reviewed Feb. 27, 2010; runs through Mar. 28. Running time: 1 HR, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Jill - Emily Bergl Ben - Peter Smith Sam - Morlan Higgins Penny - Lee Garlington Young Jill/Jillian - Kendall Toole
  • Music By: