Warmth radiates in heartfelt new play

Despite a few generally lyrical fantasy sequences, the play “Ravens & Seagulls” is primarily a simply told story about four middle-aged sisters — the youngest “favorite,” who is losing a battle with cancer, and the other three who struggle in coming to terms with her death and their own lives.

There may not be anything groundbreaking about it, but Atlanta playwright Karla Jennings’ drama — and director David Crowe’s Essential Theatre staging of it — is no less well-observed or sensitively rendered because of that.

As the co-winner of Essential’s annual Georgia play writing competition, the show continues in rotating repertory with fellow Atlantan Theroun Patterson’s “That Uganda Play” through Aug. 17 at the West End Performing Arts Center.

Jill Perry (an unknown actress to me) brings an extraordinary physicality to her performance as the dying Amanda. It’s rather amazing how she transforms her posture and movements and facial features, appearing so pale and weak in one instant, and then suddenly so lovely and vibrant in the next, springing back to life for some of those dream scenes.

Eventually, however, the play’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual core rests firmly on the shoulders of another character, older sister Joan, portrayed with powerful conviction by Suzanne Roush (belatedly ending a 10-year hiatus from the local stage).

Whether she’s debating the “feminine structure” of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” confronting the haunting prospect of a world without meaning in the wake of Amanda’s death or, in an especially delicate moment, making a commemorative necklace from pieces of her sister’s jewelry, Roush delineates the role beautifully.

Excellent, too, is Teresa DeBerry as Liz, the most sensible of the siblings (which is to say the least showy of the parts).

On opening night, alas, the capable Patricia French seemed clearly off her game playing the bitchiest of the sisters, Myra, who’s a fine one to talk about a bull in a china shop.

Rounding out the ensemble, the likable Sarah Elizabeth Wallis isn’t given a lot to work with as Liz’s young daughter, but Gina Rickicki and Sam Traquina agreeably provide the story with much-needed doses of humor as a variety of Amanda’s friends and well-wishers.

Rickicki also appears (at least to Amanda and Joan) as a mystical entity named Savior, a caregiver of sorts for the two sisters as they both transition, each in her own way, from one dimension or reality to another.

A serious misstep of the show, however, is how too many of these scenes are written, directed and/or acted for obvious chuckles, inadvertently trivializing some otherwise meaningful conversations — with Savior developing along the lines of Clarence, the quirky guardian angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when a nod to Jessica Lange’s hypnotic Angel of Death in “All That Jazz” might have been more appropriate.

To be sure, the bulk of Jennings’ writing is remarkably thoughtful and moving. In large part, her characters seem honest and real, their fluctuating states of familial upheaval or “harmony” essentially identifiable, and very smoothly navigated by Crowe and his cast.

The play may be about death, but it mostly impresses as a true slice of life, with or without any side orders of symbolic pomegranate from Savior.

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