Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)
Through Sunday, Jun. 24
Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh

Grief breaks families. Research shows that after a child dies, parents are 60 percent more likely to divorce. When a parent dies, the surviving spouse and child can become similarly estranged. Since divorce is not an option, what happens then?

Playwright Sheila Callaghan explores these troubled emotional waters in the prismatic, earthy, surreal, and deeply poetic Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), the first show in this summer’s Women’s Theatre Festival. At first, Callaghan approaches her subjects with deceptive lightness. The first character we encounter is a charmingly eccentric embodiment of the apartment where they live. In actor Laurel Ullman’s first monologue, the house kvetches about its present state of disrepair, then waxes nostalgic, with disturbing sensuality, about her time as a mansion. “Is there anything more delicious than a servant girl’s knees?” she asks.

The schism between Clara (Laquana Henny) and precocious eleven-year-old Janice (Kimmy Fiorentino) initially seems delightfully domestic. After Clara asks Janice to put on a hideous pullover because the heating is out of order, the girl invents an impromptu song about “that snowsuit duckie-fuck butt butt butt butt” sweater. So far, so fun.

But when Janice starts serving bleach during tea parties with her dollsand begins to devise other uses for the corrosive chemicalit’s clear that a distracted, grief-stricken Clara has pretty much checked out of parenting. Never mind, Janice is taking care of that. In fact, she has a plan to fix everything.

Under Kayla Minton Kaufman’s direction, Fiorentino’s Janice is an achievement: a multilayered study in awkwardness, vulnerability, loneliness, rage, and deep desire. Her pathology blossoms when the title character, Janice’s crush (coolly read by Gerald Louis Campbell), appears to reassure her that everything she’s planning is right. But when is it too late to reverse the effects of neglect in a psyche, a family, and a house all divided against themselves? The question lends suspense to this drama of dichotomies.