Jon Marans' script does what scripts should: It lays out material and asks us to articulate the questions and then answer them for ourselves, leaving us to think and feel and discuss on the trip home. The introductory whimsical harp music lets us know this is more than the average kitchen-sink dramedy—although there is a fully functional kitchen sink in the finely rendered kitchen set (Don Gruber). And despite its standard "when Dad dies I'll sell the house and put you in a home" setup, this story evolves differently.
The three richly drawn characters, bearing the last name Mavin (in Yiddish, literally an expert, sarcastically a know-it-all), gather at the family home when the widower father, Samuel, suffers the latest in a number of heart attacks. Daughter Emily lives with him; son Michael returns so they may sort out their lives. Emily is mentally ill—schizophrenic if a name must be put on it, a name no one but she dares utter. Or is it the upbringing—a child whose father never touched her, whose father now controls her food intake to control her weight? How crazy is she, this woman/child, whose ability to reach out to her brother when he needs help is, as she says, instinctual? Despite her studies at Wharton, Emily now stacks books at the local library. Michael is a legal-aid attorney, a disappointment to Samuel, who wanted Michael to be a scientist. Samuel insists Michael must eat a sandwich, then creates it with rancid foods. How did Michael break free when Emily could not? Is it any wonder Emily lives in her own world? So, to soothe herself, Emily jumps on her bed, a childhood practice that drove the family, well, crazy.
Under Richard Stein's well-modulated direction, tiny moments of tenderness counterbalance the outright slapstick. Deborah Van Valkenburgh makes Emily a loveable eccentric, sympathetic and fascinating, capturing the best of childhood in a rich portrayal that is part intellectual, part caged animal. Allan Miller likewise makes appealing the controlling father, every moment lively and witty; so while we'd love to be furious with Samuel, we can't because Miller gives him wonderfully rounded edges. Daniel Nathan Spector, a marvelously natural presence in his early scenes as the calm center of two whirling galaxies, later spins into Michael's own wild orbit, literally and figuratively reaching out childishly for a return to wistfully hoped-for comforts of home.
The world premiere script is not faultless: Forced exposition distracts from the world it creates. But it presents so much malleable clay from which we can shape our own ideas, it's a small fault. Is this family terribly far from normal? Doesn't each member take care of himself or herself? Won't Emily be better off by herself than with Michael's own odd little family? Most important, why do those who are slightly "off" need locking up when the more obvious imbeciles are, say, holding political office? After all, the Mavins say, the universe is full of endless possibilities.
"Jumping for Joy," presented by and at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Sept. 7-Oct. 6. $42-49. (949) 497-2787.