Starving sure to satisfy

“Defy convention.” That phrase, which appears on each of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s playbills, is one that has always embodied the spirit of their mission: edgy, provocative theater. It is also something they have taken to heart in choosing their latest world premiere.

It’s not every day a “period” piece is meaningful enough to surpass the confines of its time, but S.M. Shephard-Massat’s Starving is easily that and more. Helmed by Seret Scott (who directed last season’s “The Piano Lesson” at Arena Stage), Starving is a beautifully constructed tale of sex, secrets and survival in an “upscale negro neighborhood” in 1950s Atlanta.

Shephard-Massat has outdone herself in her writing. She weaves a vivid, layered story that embraces its darker side rather than shying away from it; the result is one of constant surprise and rapt engagement. It is not difficult to both see and feel the struggle boiling just beneath the surface of quick, clever banter and everyday life, roping the audience in from the first crisp lines to the final bow.

Her characters are equally varied and charismatic. “Starving” for freedom from the confines of a segregated society, the play is a rich ensemble piece made richer by equally talented contributions from each cast member.

Bettie Chastain (Jessica Frances Dukes) is a young woman recently relocated from country to city with her hot-tempered, philandering husband Meeker (J. Paul Nicholas). She breezes across the stage like a breath of fresh air, making her discovery of Meeker’s exploits and subsequent steely resolve all the more commanding. As pieces come together and secrets are revealed, emotions skyrocket and easygoing relationships become volatile; what is especially impressive, however, is not so much the ensuing passions as the actors’ ability to keep them in check, thus avoiding hysteria and remaining authentic and engaging.

Lizan Mitchell, however, is the shining star of a luminary cast. As Freida Ashby, the endearing busybody whose sharp wit and sharper words serve as both her sword and protective shield, Mitchell is the glue that fastens the fractured lives of individual tenants into the story of a community. She and her husband, Felix (the talented Doug Brown), are the anchors in a capricious sea of betrayal and loss, but both are not without a dark secret of their own.

As with any ensemble piece, some links are bound to be stronger than others. Bethany Butler hams it up as Dolsiss Coolbroth, a young woman with an education, a difficult life and little direction, but the flaws are slight enough to refrain from demeaning the whole.

In short, Woolly Mammoth has done it again. In its distinctive style, featuring close collaboration with playwright and directors, a story that peers into windows and opens the lives of a handful of people expands (seemingly with ease) to touch every member of the audience. All one can ask is that Shephard-Massat has it in her to do it again.

Starving is playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company until Dec. 18. Visit www.woollymammoth.net for schedules, ticket prices and other information.

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