Dirt

Writer-director Bruce Gooch's brooding drama, which premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1993, explores the ravages of old age, painful estrangement among family members, and our lifelong connections to home and nature. The play's L.A. premiere is superbly acted and adeptly designed, yet the piece feels extremely low-key, almost to the point of dramaturgic inertia at times. Thankfully, it culminates in a powerfully moving conclusion.

Much of Gooch's dialogue has a gritty slice-of-life texture, though there's plenty of lyricism as well. The arresting design elements (David Potts' set, John McElveney's props, Derrick McDaniel's lighting, costumes by Gelareh Khalioun and Karina Torrico) enhance the script's poetic shadings. Sound effects and music created by Kyle Johnston and Matthew McGaughey are likewise effective.

We first meet ailing and elderly farmer Papa (John D. Johnston), calling out to his dog to help round up his cows, momentarily forgetting that he has sold the cows and no longer has the dog. Dementia has taken its toll on the hard-working widower. Soon entering the scene is Ellie (Andrea Robinson), the kindly waitress from the local greasy spoon, who comes to check up on her customer, who lives alone. Next to arrive is Papa's estranged son, Zac (Ryan Johnston), whom Papa hasn't seen in many years. Zac has unexpectedly returned home to take care of the incapacitated patriarch. The tension between the two men seldom dissipates. The cause of their alienation becomes evident later in the play.

John D. Johnston is splendid as the gruff yet frightened widower, unprepared to face the challenges of his age: the ongoing decline of his body and mind. Projecting rage, impatience, despair, and the suppressed tenderness beneath the bluster, the actor creates an affecting and credible characterization. Ryan Johnston gives a poignant performance as the prodigal son, coming to terms with many lost years of family connection and the inevitable sadness yet to come. Robinson does capable work in a role that seems only marginally relevant to the story and themes.

Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre and Firefly Theater & Films at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Jan. 28–Feb. 27. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (323) 960-5563. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.