A play about the end of the world might sound bleak, but playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, the final production in Actors Guild of Lexington's 27th season, is a surprisingly warm, uplifting comedy that tackles some of the deepest questions of human existence with thoughtful levity.
The play, which opened Thursday and continues through Aug. 21, centers on the Stein family, which has moved away from New York City in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Two years later, the family is hanging by a thread, each member grappling with the grief and trauma of that day in wildly different ways that only drive them further apart.
Mom Sylvia (Allie Darden) has gone from being an atheist to an evangelical Christian. Daughter Rachel (Lauren Virginia Albert) has become a goth. And dad Arthur (Robert Parks Johnson), well, he never goes anywhere at all. His severe depression makes acts as simple as taking a shower a monumental effort.
Laufer's script leaves a few practical matters unaddressed. How does this family have money, for instance? No one seems to have a job. And why are there no cellphones in this 2003 setting? But these omissions of practicality do not detract from the overall impact of the play's heartening message: Embracing our differences with optimism can bring us closer.
Besides, there are more important things to address than money. Jesus Christ and Stephen Hawking, for instance. Waking hallucinations of both are played with understated, tongue-in-cheek comedy by Adam Luckey.
Director Eric Seale has a keen grasp of the material and knows how to get the small cast to play to each member's strengths, creating a few moments of tenderness or comedy — and sometimes both — that genuinely catch you off guard.
Many of these moments are born out of unabashed ordinariness, like Arthur's re-awakening from depression. While helping his daughter's sort-of boyfriend Nelson (Alex Maddox) practice Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, Arthur displays a glimmer of life stirring.
If Laufer and Seale are preaching anything, it is that the ordinariness of everyday life is what might save us from heartache. While huddled together waiting for the Rapture, which Sylvia is certain will arrive Wednesday, the family saves itself by just hanging out and being a family. Eating sandwiches and playing board games together are a healing salve.
It is moving to watch Johnson's character come to life, just as it is to see Albert's and Darden's characters regain their humanity. If their first-act performances seem one-dimensional, you'll see why that is in the second act, when they begin to drop the security blankets of caricature to reveal the pain, and hope, that lies beneath.
Of course, none of this could be possible without Nelson, who has the most literal security blanket of all, an Elvis costume. From both strictly entertaining and thematic standpoints, Nelson is the linchpin of the production, and Maddox's performance is the highlight of the show, inspiring the most laughs and revelations.
Nelson might be a perpetual misfit pathetically in love with Rachel with a host of bizarre eccentricities, but he is so full of genuine and thoughtful optimism that he convinces each member of the Stein family that it's good to be alive.