Colder Than Here

Running through April 28 at 7:30 p.m.

PURE Theatre

The Cigar Factory, 701 East Bay St.723-4444

For some theatergoers, British theatre means either heavyweight Shakespeare or Alan Ayckbourn-style farce (see previous page). This season, local audiences have been treated to Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular at the Village Playhouse and Neil Simon’s homage to English silliness London Suite at Footlight Theatre. Ray Cooney’s madcap Out of Order opened at Footlight just this past weekend. But now comes something completely different: for those who think Brits spend all their time running in and out of bedrooms with their pants ’round their ankles, PURE’s latest dramatic offering from a serious, up-and-coming U.K. writer will come as a pleasant surprise.

Colder Than Here takes the stock characters we know so well from British farce — the no-nonsense mum, the pun-loving dad, the stoic daughter, and her screwed up sibling — and places them in an unremittingly real, dreadful situation. There’s no screwball humor here, although there are laugh out loud moments; instead the family deals with the impending loss of the mother, Myra.

After being diagnosed with bone cancer and told she has mere months to live, Myra starts to get her affairs in order and deal with the concept of her own mortality. It’s a tough one to grasp — when she’s lying dead in her cardboard coffin, should she wrap up warm to ward off the chill? Will she be scared when the dirt is chucked on her grave? Is her funeral for her at all, or for her husband and daughters to help them cope with her death?

Playwright Laura Wade structures the drama carefully, allowing the cracks in the family’s calm façade to reveal themselves slowly but surely. By the end of the play even Myra’s husband, Alec, is having trouble keeping his cool — despite the fact that the boiler’s on the blink and his house is as cold as a tomb.

As Myra, Cynthia Barnett is a warm presence who’s easy to relate to. Her performance is unstintingly believable, thanks to the focus she gives to her other actors. She listens to her daughters with such intensity that the audience is drawn to them as well.

Like Barnett, Nat Jones allows his parental figure to show great vulnerability when necessary. Both actors also make the most of comic lines and expressions that come as welcome breathers from a central plot that is, as one character puts it, “fucking morbid.”

In the low-key role of Harriett, Myra’s eldest daughter, actress Mandy Deneaux is as credible and dependable as her character. Kara O’Neil plays the annoyingly neurotic Jenna perhaps too well; she’s supposed to be self-centered, but after a while her frowns and pouts get tedious and her South African-sounding accent grates. As an out-of-her-depth 27-year-old, Jenna should be the person that younger members of the audience can relate to, but O’Neil stays unlovable through most of the play. Fortunately, a few well-wrought father-daughter scenes allow us to cozy up to her.

PURE Artistic Director and cofounder Sharon Graci directs the play with her usual attention to rhythm and pace. Events move so quickly that the show runs effectively without an intermission, even though it’s over 90 minutes long. With no break and a minimum of scene shifting, the actors still convince us that seasons are passing and Myra’s life is ebbing away.

True to their vow to concentrate more on the acting and less on the technical aspects of their productions, the PURE thespians have handed over stage managing duties to the proficient Tripp Hamilton, one of Graci’s two sons. Still, the set is one of the company’s strongest in recent memory, making use of tree limbs and black drapes to suggest a variety of outdoor locations. The lighting, while simple, is always effective: there’s one great cinematic moment when a warm light starts to shine on Myra and Jenna, Myra smiles and we know exactly how she feels.

This is a powerful, entertaining production with deep themes and authentic relationships that never gets cloying or overly predictable, but adheres to its cool British roots — and there isn’t a bedroom in sight.