Playwright Samuel Hunter's "A Permanent Image" is by no means the first play to tell the story of adult siblings returning from out of town for a parent's funeral.
The emotional tension of that ubiquitous human moment — which often involves booze, recriminations, guilt, money, shock, self-examination and sheer, unadulterated grief — has attracted scribes from Horton Foote on down.
And the two confused, angry, bereft siblings in this play — one the lesbian owner of a trucking company whose lover just left with their kid, the other a war-zone photographer with a penchant for gruesome photos — very much fall into the model of dysfunctional adults who can barely take care of themselves, let alone deal with a death in their estranged, pain-filled family.
But Hunter's 2011 play, which was first seen in the playwright's native Idaho and has not been previously staged in Chicago, has a couple of unusual twists.
One is that the dead parent in question — the dad — appears to have not only killed himself, but to have filmed himself doing so. The other is that the surviving mom has painted everything white, and that includes the doors, the walls, the kitchen, the wall clock, the La-Z-Boy, the couch. Much of the ensuing drama revolves around the question of why. Grief? Temporary or ongoing insanity? A more nefarious purpose?
A rising young writer, Hunter is adept at coming up with these striking visual images — his newer hit play from New York, "The Whale" (opening at Victory Gardens Theater on Monday), features a 600-pound man at center stage.
An earlier play, "A Permanent Image," certainly totters at the edge of realism, a fusion of Midwest Gothic, let's say, with clattering notes of absurdism. But one of the main things that makes LiveWire Chicago's production at the Storefront Theater so worth watching is that it dangles on that edge of the outre without ever toppling into the ridiculous.
You'll be sustained not just by the question of where this play is going, familiar as its landscape seems to be, but also by the empathy you'll find yourself feeling for characters who have no idea how to respond to what their parents — one dead, one very much alive — have decided to do of their own free will. How much freedom to give aging parents is another potent theme of the night — and if you make your way to the Storefront, where tickets are a mere $15, I guarantee you will find yourself involved in these strange circumstances.
To put all this another way, Hunter uses a wacky, bizarre circumstance to tickle your theatrical muscle, and then good old-fashioned empathy to make you think about how you would react in the same circumstance. Truly, the appeal of this play is all in that tension.
You think to yourself, well, I won't ever experience anything quite like this, and then you think, well, maybe I will. Does not the death of loved one, even a loved one with whom we had little or no relationship, upend us all?
Director Joshua Aaron Weinstein's production is careful and truthful enough to really catch this crucial tension. This is not a flashy show, but Mary Williamson, who plays the daughter, shows us a lot of fear in her eyes, and Ed Dzialo, who plays the emotionally slippery son, comes up with quite the moving picture of a man who prefers to walk away rather than get involved in the strangeness of human decisions. Janice O'Neill's mom character stays more in the familiar, but she still surprises in places.
Hunter is also interested here in metaphysics — a fusion with ordinary Midwest life and death that, tempting as the connection is to make, does not entirely work, to my mind. It is a lot for the structure of the play to hold and it feels like it arrives too late in the game. But one way to appreciate the talents of a young writer is to see him or her work in traditional circumstances and forge a fresh path. So it goes here.
LiveWire's design team of Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky, with arresting video projections by Liviu Pasare, have a tough assignment for a company with a small budget. They vividly colorize (if white is a color) Hunter's stark landscape, fully in keeping with the play's observation that you can't go back in life, just try to pull from it and make some semblance of sense.
When: Through May 5
Where: Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $15 at brownpapertickets.com