It's probably one of the nicer traits in human nature: elevating people who have experienced misfortune. And I don't mean extending a helping hand; I mean turning them into near-saints in our minds. After all, bad things happen to bad people, too.
British playwright Sarah Wooley puts that impulse to the ultimate test in her play They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina, receiving its American premiere at Little Lake Theatre Co. Years ago, while they were vacationing in Disneyland, British couple Ray and Eileen's toddler son was abducted. When the play opens, it's 25 years later and a young man claiming to be their son appears on their doorstep. Eileen rejoices that he's back. Ray is convinced he's a liar.
Maybe it's because I raised one, but having your child stolen has to be the worst thing that could ever happen, so I was all prepared to feel plenty bad for everyone on stage. But Wooley's having none of it. She goes out of her way to make sure we see the flaws in the characters. And I don't mean cutesy flaws like, "maybe I just love too deeply for my own good," but rather dark, even nasty failings. In creating almost Brechtian alienation, she keeps us from indulging in easy pity.
Because she's such a good writer, you don't realize how delicately Wooley has walked the line between drama and melodrama. The first act is quiet, haunting and heartbreaking. But in Act II Wooley trips over that melodramatic line when, in trying to surprise us and confound our dramatic expectations, she wanders into turgid soap opera.
But that's really not much of a complaint. I'd much rather see a playwright taking chances than playing it safe, and by the second act Wooley has proven to be such an interesting playwright you're more than willing to overlook her few missteps.
Sunny Disney Fitchett directs with all the care and intelligence the play deserves. This is an evening of three people in their own purgatory and Fitchett keeps us right up in that struggle. Warren Ashburn and Lynne Franks play the married couple with such a perfect mixture of habitual resignation it's impossible to believe they haven't spent 30 years in a loveless marriage. And crashing into their misery is Don DiGiulio, providing the pitch-perfect blend of damage and danger.
More Sarah Wooley plays, please.
They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina continues through Nov. 7. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelaketheatre.org