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Life not always what it’s cracked up to be in ‘Joe Egg’

Vance Smith as Bri KendrThulas Sheil“A Day Death Joe Egg.”  | Phoby Johnny Knight

Vance Smith as Bri and Kendra Thulin as Sheila in “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.” | Photo by Johnny Knight

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‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, through Feb. 16, Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. $20-$27. (773) 975-8150; Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Highly Recommended

Updated: January 22, 2014 4:27PM

It is the worst nightmare of every expectant parent — that their child will be born severely disabled, requiring round-the-clock care for life, with no hope for improvement or natural development, and no ability to speak, think or respond normally. In the bluntest terms — and no one is more blunt than the doctor consulted by the devastated mother in “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” — now in a superb revival by Stage Left Theatre, under the spot-on direction of Greg Werstler — her child is “a vegetable,” and she’d better get used to it.

So where do you go from there? That is the question in British playwright Peter Nichols’ pitch-black, brutally honest, quasi-autobiographical comedy of despair. The play quite brilliantly captures the cumulative impact on a marriage that has endured 10 years of such all-consuming parenting as all efforts are made to keep the child out of an institution.

For Brian (Vance Smith in an utterly bravura turn that follows in the footsteps of Albert Finney, who originated the role in 1967, Alan Bates, who played it in the film version, and more recently, Eddie Izzard, who brought it back toBroadway), that decade has been an increasingly demoralizing quest for attention and survival as he watches his life, his marriage and his virility wither. The only place he can exert even a modicum of control is as a teacher at a trade school, where his primary job is maintaining discipline — an exercise that inspires the play’s hilarious opening monologue.

Brian’s self-flagellating wife, Sheila (Kendra Thulin, fierce in her hope, denial and heartbreaking resignation), believes her youthful promiscuity may have caused her daughter’s condition, and she soldiers on, the enduring nurturer of plants, cats, goldfish and her pretty but palsied, epileptic, helpless daughter, Joe (Piper Bailey, in a truly impressive debut in which her body speaks eloquently). Her husband’s frenzied efforts to engage her in sex are gently but clearly rebuffed, and it is obvious that the whole situation is sending him in the direction of the exit sign.

The tension generated by the mix of love, duty, disgust, tolerance, self-deception and bitter truth are palpable, and they are only heightened by Nichols’ Brechtian music hall-like riffs for Brian.

Nichols also adds to the edgy satire in the second act by showing how “outsiders” respond to the couple’s situation. There is a rare visit by Sheila’s “friends” — the liberal businessman, Freddie (Brian Plocharczyk just right as a winningly hypocritical do-gooder), and his repellent wife, Pam (a perfectly bitchy Annie Prichard), who can’t cope with the situation at all. Brian’s self-involved mother, Grace (the very funny Marssie Mencotti), is willfully oblivious to things, and very much the mother of her son.

Too depressing? The miracle of “Joe Egg” is that it dances a crazy jig with the truth, and finds a sort of twisted comedy in its partnering with undeniable tragedy.

Email: Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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