Early in Robert Leland Taylor's "Billy Would've Been 30 Today," the character of Gladys displays a painting she commissioned depicting how her son Billy, who died at age 5, would look today, 25 years later.
But this Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry is less about a little boy denied the chance to grow up than it is about how his death has stunted the growth of his family.
Yes, this is yet another example of the tried-and-true American theatrical genre of the dysfunctional family. But Taylor's writing -- combined with TraceyAnn Tokar Smith's direction -- is sensitive enough to make this a memorable production.
As is clear from the title, the action takes place on Billy's birthday, an occasion Gladys observes annually with cake, champagne and a memorial slide show. Last year her older child, Alisa, had the audacity to describe it as "morbid." This year, Alisa, who is pregnant, struggles to break the news to her mother that she and her husband are moving across the country and will be able to visit only a few times a year.
Alisa's task is especially difficult because her mother's grasp of reality has been shaky since Billy's death. As Gladys, Mary Alice Feather deserves commendation for reining in her portrayal of a hysterical character who has more than a little in common with Tennessee Williams' neurotic heroines. It is indicative of Feather's success that at times she makes you wonder if Alisa isn't exaggerating Gladys' problems -- with the exception of her alcohol problem, which is amply demonstrated.
Our empathy is enhanced because, as Alisa, Marianne Angelella shows the love she bears for her mother at the same time that she battles to hold back years of pent-up resentment. The source of that resentment takes the form of a secret that is repeatedly hinted at until the play's climactic confrontation scene.
True to its genre, this 11th-hour scene is pretty predictable. But here again, the playwright reveals a sense of subtlety by following it with a quieter scene that ends his script with a welcome touch of ambiguity.
The play also includes a third character -- Kenneth, father of Billy and Alisa. A man whose approach to adversity is to retreat to his basement wood shop, Kenneth is absent from many of the play's more emotional moments. Combined with Larry Richman's stiff performance, this makes this strong, silent character the weakest on stage.
To counteract this, the playwright has attempted to give Kenneth an added dimension by suggesting his attitude may have contributed to his wife's problems, as well as to some of his own. But this is one of the few underdeveloped threads in a script that, at just under 80 minutes, capably covers its well-trod territory.
What: "Billy Would've Been 30 Today"
Where: Avalon Theatre, Catonsville Recreation Center, 106 Bloomsbury Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. July 31; through July 31
Call: (410) 747-0080