CAMBRIDGE — With “Two Boys Lost,” playwright Bill Doncaster takes the familiar trope of the dysfunctional family and shifts it just enough to make it surprisingly fresh and compelling. His skill lies in crafting characters that never slip into stereotype but emerge as flawed individuals trying to figure out how to balance family expectations with moving on with their own lives.
“Two Boys Lost,” which is having its premiere in the unorthodox setting of the Massasoit Elks Lodge, follows the Boston-area Molineaux family as they remember their last Christmas with their brother and son Jimmy. The play opens with the youngest sibling, Julie (Shawna Ciampa), remembering Jimmy’s final days with a mix of sadness and regret, only to be interrupted in her reverie by Ma (Cheryl McMahon), who punctures Julie’s nostalgia with her own bitter perspective.
It turns out Jimmy (Brett Milanowski) had a lifelong struggle with mental illness, one that often left him homeless, even though the family lived nearby. Ma’s inability to cope with Jimmy left her other son, Eddie (James Bocock), in the role of Jimmy’s guardian, but his recent marriage and political ambitions had made it harder for him to shoulder that responsibility.
Although the title is “Two Boys Lost,” everyone in the Molineaux family is lost. As we relive those last days with them, we hear the often opposing perspectives of each family member. While Eddie admired his brother Jimmy for the wild imagination he displayed in the childhood game they called “Two Boys Lost,” he can’t understand Jimmy’s descent into his illness. Angela (Jade Guerra), Eddie’s new wife, knows him better than he knows himself but refuses to be caught up in his family’s bickering. Julie can’t figure out why her mother isn’t loving and encouraging, so she protects herself by keeping her distance. And while Jimmy often seems like a passive observer, it’s clear he feels the resentment his illness causes.
Director James Peter Sotis has gathered a stellar ensemble to portray these complicated characters, and he moves them confidently through Doncaster’s fluid script. But the stars of this show are the extraordinary McMahon and Milanowski. McMahon plays Ma as the glue that holds the Molineaux family together and the acid that tears it apart. It would be easy to make Ma the villain in this story, but McMahon delivers a woman who lives her life in denial because it’s the only way she can continue. Milanowski, for his part, makes Jimmy remarkably aware of both his family’s, and his own, limitations.
“Two Boys Lost” is a terrific new script that establishes Doncaster as a playwright with a keen ear for dialogue and a wonderful understanding of character development. At play’s end, he leaves the audience still thinking about the Molineaux family, wondering “what if” and “what’s next.”
Don’t miss the curtain riser, “Step On Me,” a hilarious short play by Lisa Wagner Erickson that toys with one woman’s obsession with her bathroom scale. Director Jen Alison Lewis guides her two actors, Liz Michael Hartford and Michael Towers, to find all the physicality in the piece without making it cartoonish.