Even while ostensibly engaged in conversation, someone always seems to be snapping photos in “Really,’’ as if the truth about people can best be discerned not in what they say but in the way they behave while under a camera’s unflinching gaze.
Further complicating matters in this quietly piercing if overly enigmatic drama by Jackie Sibblies Drury is the fact that its two female characters are trying to get at the truth of a man who is apparently no longer alive, or who has simply disappeared.
One is his mother (identified simply as “Mother’’), portrayed by Kippy Goldfarb, who delivers one of those indelible, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performances. The other is his girlfriend (identified simply as “Girlfriend’’), played by Rachel Cognata. The man they are mourning is Calvin (Aleksandr Portenko), reputedly a photographer of consummate artistry but also a temperamental son and a condescending boyfriend.
Both women clearly loved him, though. Goldfarb wrenchingly conveys the ache of unappeasable loss, including one scene in which Mother’s face contorts in a long, noiseless scream. Cognata, playing the more reactive Girlfriend, is affecting but does not yet appear to have a full grasp of an admittedly hazy character.
Sensitively directed by Shawn LaCount and punctuated by thrumming effects from sound designer Lee Schuna, this regional premiere of “Really’’ is being staged by Company One Theatre not in its usual space at the Boston Center for the Arts but rather inside the Matter & Light Fine Art gallery in the South End.
The venue adds to the intimacy of the experience — and, frankly, the delicate filigree of “Really’’ might not fully register within a larger space. Among other things, “Really’’ underscores the remarkable range of playwright Drury. Its miniature portraiture stands in stark contrast to the historical sweep and innovative storytelling of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation. . .,’’ her brilliant examination of racism through the prism of a genocide in Africa, which Company One coproduced with ArtsEmerson three years ago.
The role of race emerges subtly, contextually, in “Really.’’ By making Calvin white and Girlfriend a woman of color whom he treats patronizingly, Drury clearly wants us to think about the power dynamics of race and gender, and about related questions of representation in an artistic context and beyond.
In some respects, “Really’’ is reminiscent of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,’’ in which a woman whose son had died many years earlier of AIDS pays a visit to the son’s ex-lover and is disconcerted to learn he has a husband with whom he is raising a 6-year-old son.
By contrast, Mother in “Really’’ initially seems to encourage her son’s ex-lover to move on with her life. The older woman has come for a photo session in the loft that Calvin and Girlfriend, who is also a photographer, used to share. Though she claims she “didn’t even run a comb through my hair before I came,’’ Mother is immaculately coiffed and fastidiously, if simply, attired. Girlfriend, by contrast, is dressed for work in torn blue overalls and a thin sweater.
Their mutual grief has not made the relationship between the two women any less awkward, to judge by Girlfriend’s long silences as she adjusts equipment, a camera slung around her neck, while Mother, posed in a chair, chatters away, ranging across topic after topic as she tries to make conversation, seemingly eager to please. Or perhaps to make amends? “It’s important for thoughts to be articulated, don’t you think? To someone else?’’ Mother says. Girlfriend doesn’t seem to think so, at least at first.
Eventually, they converse a bit more easily. Mother confesses the depth of her loneliness; Girlfriend describes the project she’s working on. The women dissect their relationship with Calvin, examine his photos and revisit key moments with him in flashback scenes. But recriminations flare, too. “You didn’t love him correctly,’’ Mother accuses Girlfriend, who forcefully rejoins: “I. Didn’t raise him.’’ Mother concludes, hauntingly: “There’s something unforgivable here. Except that it has already happened. And here we are.’’
Where are they? Perhaps in a place where they’ve figured out something about themselves. For the rest of us, “Really’’ stands as a reminder of the limits to our true knowledge of even the human beings we’re closest to.
Play by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Shawn LaCount. Presented by Company One Theatre with Matter & Light Fine Art. At Matter & Light Fine Art, 63 Thayer St., Boston, through March 4. Tickets: $25-$42, 617-292-7110, www.companyone.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.