Common Ground Theatre
4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham
Through Jan. 23

I now know my favorite aunt liked soap operas for the same reason I once liked horror flicks and dystopian comics: Both gave us the desired perspective that, somehow, things could be so much worse.

I picked up this insight over the holidays with the folks and the family. (We had a funeral. Hope yours were fine, thanks.) After that time with them, seeing a show like SMALL AND TIRED made me feel as if I’d never left.

Because of and despite that, I have to recommend the latest Common Wealth Endeavors production as the company’s strongest to date. Artistic director Gregor McElvogue leads a solid quintet though Australian playwright Kit Brookman’s family drama, a surprisingly deft, contemporary retelling of the Oresteia.

At first, it seems the blood debt has been lifted from the house of Atreus. Iphigenia died years ago, at home, by her own hand, and not her father’s. Agamemnon has just perished from a heart attack, and Orestes has returned from years of self-imposed exile. He’s not bent on matricide against Clytemnestra, but organizing his dad’s funeral instead. So the Furies are not pursuing Orestes.

But as details unravel over beers in a bar with new companion Pylades, or uneasy drinks in a backyard with his sister Electra, we learn that something equally implacable is in pursuit of Orestes. Jane Holding’s regal, icy Clytemnestra gives her son only the coldest of comfort upon his return. When Orestes asks if she wishes that her family had turned out otherwise, she calmly replies, “I wish a lot of things had gone differently, darling. But they didn’t.” When she smiles while explaining her reasons for initially sending Orestes away after Iphigenia’s death, it’s clear Clytemnestra thinks she did the right thing. It’s also as obvious she still has no inkling of the toxic, true consequences of her acts.

Laurel Ullman’s magnetic and unstable Electra stands among her best performances. She is caught in a psychological quintuple-bind between love, attraction, revulsion, trauma and vengeance. Linh Schladweiler makes a solid return to the regional stage as her husband and caregiver, Jim.

Under McElvogue’s direction, Justin Peoples seemed too invasive as Pylades during a rushed first encounter with Orestes in a bar, but he later found a more mellow approach. I also questioned Justin Brent Johnson’s performance as Orestes, which seemed more reactive than active.

Still, the chill in this production from a family mostly frozen by its members’ grief, anger and need remains palpableand, to some at least, familiar. Bundle up.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Family feud”