Mi Vida Loca

Deep Dish Theater
Through Sept. 19

During a reunion of the 1950s activist folk group The Weavers, founding member Lee Hays quipped, “The past isn’t what it used to be.” To which Ronnie Gilbert, the group’s powerful alto, chuckled and added, “And it never was.”

These aperçus are injunctions against nostalgiaand therefore thoughts well worth considering when it comes to Eric Overmyer’s psychological family drama Mi Vida Loca. Director Paul Frellick’s finely nuanced production of it opened Deep Dish Theater’s 10th-anniversary season on an auspicious note last weekend at Chapel Hill’s University Mall. The playwright’s credits include writing for HBO’s The Wire and Treme. His achievement here suggests a version of On Golden Pond with all of that hazy, feel-good varnish stripped awaysay, after an unsparing rewrite by Sam Shepard.

Patriarch Ajay (a pitch-perfect John Murphy) isn’t exactly in his golden years as he stands on the porch of set designer Rob Hamilton’s shabby-genteel cottage, several hundred yards away from the sea in some isolated Pacific Northwest beach town. He’s a 69-year-old junkie with a 20-year painkiller habitthe result of a careless doctor’s misdiagnosisthat’s in the process of killing him. Ajay’s last shot at straightening out is a residency at a university pain clinic, several hours away. News of this development and preparations for the trip cause a shattered family to convene and reassess its past.

In the process, Overmyer examines how an addiction-prone family disables everyone within it, to some degree. In a rare appearance, stage veteran Helen Hagan exposes the raw edges of daughter Lulu, who excuses her current status as a terminally unemployed barfly by way of an “illness” several years prior, one that sent her on her inexorable downward spiral. With Lulu’s mother, Maggie (Jane Underhill), advising family members not to hope for too much from medical treatments, we see how the sinister patterns of enabling are established.

When Ajay’s grown son Paco (John Allore) returns home, he seems not so much cagey or distracted as someone who knows he always has to keep one eye on his own emotional equilibrium, in a situation that could easily throw him off balance. Credit is due to Allore for his complex portrait; his Paco knows he’s still a little too interested in edges. Having fallen off enough of them, he circles the circumstances and his kinfolk warily, like a cat. The joker in this deck is Jeri Lynn Schulke’s live-in nurse, Diana, an improbable icon of nonattachment for whom a fortuitous house fire has seemingly immolated all of her interpersonal baggage as well.

As these family members appraise what’s left of their relationships, we’re reminded that the longer emotional or physical pain is kept at bay, the greater the price. When the group unsparingly corrects memories from its shared past, we learn that our understandings of long-ago events remain subject to revision. A moment’s revelation can place the stories of our life in rewrite and reinforceor obliteratethe old narrative and its relationships.

Correction (Sept. 6, 2010): The print version of this story had Jane Underhill’s character’s name incorrect; it is Maggie.