LOWELL — The couple who lives at the end of the cul de sac called Homestead Crossing seem to fit perfectly into the plush armchairs at the center of their living room: Noel is ensconced in his tasteful leather number, while his wife, Anne, flits around her cloth-covered chair, decorated with a cozy blanket and colorful pillow. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving, and the pleasure of “Homestead Crossing,” now having its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, lies in the delight playwright William Donnelly takes in upending our expectations.
Noel (David Adkins) and Anne (Corinna May) are a long-married couple, so settled into their routine they have little left to say to each other. They have a shared bond, Noel explains, but their “wants no longer align.” But on one quiet, rainy afternoon, the silence is broken by the appearance of a young woman named Claudia (Lesley Shires), who has landed on their doorstep when her boyfriend Tobin failed to arrive at their appointed meeting place. Soaked by the rain, Claudia wastes no time slipping into a bathrobe and shaking up Noel and Anne’s boring day. Claudia is a voluble runaway who has “liberated herself from an unfair circumstance” and is on her way to Toronto with Tobin to begin the rest of their lives.
Claudia’s arrival awakens Noel and Anne’s long-dormant personalities, and we quickly learn that Anne, who describes herself as modest, was once quite daring, and Noel, whom Claudia worries is one of “the bored, the dismissive,” once had a sense of adventure. When Tobin (Ross Cowan) appears with an outrageous tale of his car washing away in the storm, “Homestead Crossing” starts drifting into surreal Edward Albee territory, except that Donnelly’s characters are less bitter and anguished.
Donnelly’s arch banter offers amusing insights into these odd characters, as well as carefully placed clues about the reversal that’s coming. At first, Anne and Noel’s exchanges focus on their intellect, and their vocabulary, including references to deleting memories “from my hard drive,” highlights their inability to connect on an emotional level. But even as Anne muses that “someday we’ll be dust in a can like some forgotten two-reeler from the ’20s,” Claudia wonders about the Bible as a handbook of bad parenting and asks for graphic explanations of why the couple don’t have children. While Noel is nervous and even a bit paranoid about the “intruders,” Tobin is hilariously easygoing, even though his entire world seems to have drifted away with the car.
Donnelly, who spent several years as the resident playwright at the imaginative Industrial and Rough & Tumble theater companies, has a gift for casting a spell on an audience before we even realize it’s happening. He is fearless about reaching into the world of metaphor and symbolism, but it works in “Homestead Crossing” because he creates such a realistic base in his distinctive characters.