In a week that brings us "Next to Normal," the bar for dramatic family dysfunction is already set high. But Amy Hartman's "Mercy & the Firefly" clears that bar with ease, scaling heights of dysfunction you might not imagine.
It's grim stuff. But "Mercy" counteracts that: first, in the sardonic humor with which Ms. Hartman interlaces her dialogue, especially early, before the dimensions of that dysfunction become more (but never totally) clear; in the indisputable humanity of her characters; and then, astonishingly amid the debris of emotional carnage, when a small flower of love and compassion forces its way up through the concrete.
Not that I quite understand the parameters of the battle. I can't make more than general sense of the central character, Lucy, a nun who has gone AWOL from her social service post in the barrio of East Los Angeles and returned to her equally grim native Homestead. Despite her anger and pain, her behavior remains pretty much inexplicable.
Lucy arrives back in Homestead with Mercy Rivera, a teenage girl whom she has either kidnapped or saved from murderous gang war or both, possibly for a mixture of motives, some of them unsavory, all illegal. Mercy is a piece of work, with language that blisters your ears and behavior to match.
In Homestead, Lucy demands refuge for herself and Mercy, one with her mother, Vivian, the other across the drug-strewn street with Oliver, Lucy's old boyfriend. A former jailbird and recovering (he says) junkie, he seems like a choirboy compared to mom, who pretends to be nuttier than she is.
Gradually we get the truth, or at least competing stories, about what happened to Lucy, Mercy and another girl back in L.A. As Oliver and Vivian try to get Lucy and Mercy to accept some kind of plausible plan, everyone waits for Children's Services or the cops to show up. And there's a gun.
Yet there's also all that funny banter, mainly from Oliver, plus the schitzy humor of Vivian's supposed craziness. But Mercy? ... no, I wouldn't say she's ever funny. Nor is a murdered waif who appears in a disturbing rap prologue and then as an accusing ghost.
As a playwright, Ms. Hartman has a special talent for heightened reality and language to match. You can't accuse her characters of being unrealistic because they exist on a highly charged plane where street talk begins to develop the rhythms and imagistic insistence of poetry.
The set by Stephanie Mayer-Staley frames that with realism, a grimy kitchen and even grimier vacant lot. Melissa Martin's direction is realistic, too, the better to let us savor (and try to unsnarl) the characters' delusions.
This mix of gritty realism and heightened language puts demands on the actors. As Oliver and Vivian, Patrick Jordan and Penelope Lindblom are as good as they've ever been, he in his stoic humor, layering humor, strength and fragility, and she in her very convincing mix of eccentricity and sanity.
Shammen McCune and young Chelsea Mervis have the greater burdens (fiendishly difficult, I'd say) as Lucy, who never admits to whatever it is that has tied her up in such illogical, self-defeating knots, and Mercy, whose anguish is if anything too obvious.
The hint of redemption at the end has been prefigured earlier by those names: Mercy, a powerful grace note for a foul-mouthed waif; Lucy, the root of which ironically suggests light; Oliver, with its olive branch of peace; and even Vivian, meaning "lively," whose most famous relative was the saintly, maternal Lady of the Lake.
Something beautiful is stirring among these four. Using names this way is part and parcel of Ms. Hartman's instinctive poetry.
"Mercy & the Firefly" had its origin in a small play Ms. Hartman wrote for B.U.S., the Bricolage Urban Scrawl. This Playhouse Rep production follows hard on its premiere in February with a different director and cast at the Luna Stage in West Orange, N.J.
Unhappy families are all different, goes the truism. We wish continued life to these tormented souls, whose dramatic life mirrors the struggle in blasted communities like that where it is set.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: email@example.com .