“A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” playing at ACT Theatre

Laugh! Laugh as often as you can, because life’s a joke, too painful to deal with, and you’re unlikely to find an escape. There are lots of laughs in Joe Egg, all needed to cover the horrifying sadness at the heart of the play.

Playwright Peter Nichols crafted this work in 1967, and it’s lost none of its power over the years. The current staging by Thalia’s Umbrella and ACT’s Central Heating Lab, directed by Daniel Wilson, is indeed savagely funny as it spins out its heartbreaking tale.

School teacher Brian and his wife Sheila, an appealing middle-class, English couple, struggle to care for their 10-year-old daughter who is more like a vegetable than a person, though vegetables don’t have the uncontrollable fits that she has. Atrocious medical care during and after a very difficult labor seems to be the cause. Sheila is ever hopeful, all loving. She refuses to institutionalize the child. Brian, the realist, wants his marriage and his life back.

As the play opens, Terry Edward Moore as Brian walks onto the stage and chastises audience members as if they were students in his classroom. He’s more than a little overbearing. Can it be that Moore, the consummate actor, is overacting? You soon realize that overacting or over reacting to life is the only thing that keeps Brian going. It’s a defense mechanism. At home he and Sheila playact much of their life, as they wheel the totally incapacitated Josephine known as Joe on and off stage.

Leslie Law as Sheila is stunning. Her every move, expression, kittenish posture, tender glance reveal more of her character. She and Moore play off one another to perfection.

All the acting in this production is precise. Susan Corzatte as Brian’s mother is the quintessential overbearing, opinionated English matron of a certain class. Brandon Whitehead as Freddie, the friend who visits with his wife Pam (Carol Roscoe), makes a detestable, insensitive, know-it-all with a solution to everyone else’s problem. Roscoe’s Pam exhibits a savage snobbery, completely unaware that she and Hitler have similar worldviews. Even young Aidyn Stevens successfully inhabits her role as Joe.

This is not a play for those seeking a jolly little night out. But, if you enjoy meaty plays, if you enjoy marvelously realized theatre, you’ll find much to like here, even as it breaks your heart.

Through Feb. 17 at The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT, 700 Union Street, Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)

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