‘Becky Shaw’: A complex tale of love and dysfunction

From left, Alycia M. Kunkle, Suzanne Kimball and Terence MacSweeny co-star in "Becky Shaw," which is at the Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through March 6.

From left, Alycia M. Kunkle, Suzanne Kimball and Aaron Matteson co-star in “Becky Shaw,” which is at the Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through March 6.

It’s four months after Suzanna’s father has died, and she’s still mourning. Her widowed mother, Susan, is not exactly sympathetic, though, and accuses her of being “infatuated” with her grief, and dwelling on it because it “distinguishes” her.

“It’s not a distinction, Suzanna,” Susan scolds. “A parent’s death … It is the most common of milestones.”

Welcome to the Slater family — not exactly the most nurturing of environments — in the play “Becky Shaw,” which is currently being presented by the Centenary Stage Company at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown. The blunt, caustic Susan (played by Catherine Rust) is not even the harshest member of it. That would be Max (Terence MacSweeny), Suzanna’s brother (via adoption), who has such a coldly calculating way of dealing with the world that he might as well be a robot. It’s amazing that Suzanna (Alycia M. Kunkle) is as sane as she is.

Max — who adores Suzanna, in his own reptilian way — suggests that she go on a ski trip, to get over her loss. She does so, and meets Andrew (Aaron Matteson), a nice, well-educated guy who’s more concerned with helping other people than advancing his own career. They get married, impulsively. Soon, Andrew sets up his friend Becky Shaw (Suzanne Kimball) and Max, on a blind date.

That’s when all hell breaks loose. Becky’s life is a mess, and she doesn’t seem to mind that everyone knows it (or maybe she’s just beyond pretending). After she tells Max that she’s been in therapy “a few times, for a few different issues,” and he jokes that, given her current problems, it clearly didn’t work, she says, sadly but also a bit mischievously, “How do you know? You didn’t see me before I went.”

Despite the play’s title, Becky isn’t really the central character. There is no central character. The play is really about three relationships: Suzanna and Max, Suzanna and Andrew, and Becky and Max. It’s Becky’s presence, though, that forces everyone’s neuroses out into the open, and creates various crises. At the end, lots of things are still unresolved, but you still get the sense that the characters have moved forward.

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Becky Shaw” after it was first performed, in 2008. One of the strengths of her writing is the way certain secondary themes (alcohol as an escape; the persistence of classism, even in the 21st century) recur, in various scenes, without Gionfriddo hitting you over the head with it.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett directs this sharp, no-nonsense production, coaxing particularly strong performances from MacSweeny, who gives you peeks at the humanity behind the monster that is Max; Kimball, who has the most difficult role, and somehow manages to make Becky seem both brittle and fierce; and Rust, who gives the scene-stealing Susan a convincing swagger.

I liked Taylor-Corbett’s description of the play, in the program, as a work in which each character “owns part of the puzzle, sees what ‘truth’ is, and sees what ‘good’ is, each from an equally narrow perspective. There is damage done by love and redemption created by damaged people.”

Like “The Nether,” produced with similarly satisfying results by the Centenary Stage Company last year, “Becky Shaw” is a very thorny, very modern play, and you will keep thinking about it for a long time after the last scene is over.

“Becky Shaw” is at the Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Center through March 6; visit centenarystageco.org.

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