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The ITA Workshop, which has provided audition-coaching services for 19 years, makes an impressive debut as a producing company with two compelling Thomas Babe plays (this production alternates with A Prayer for My Daughter). There's a hint of renowned playwright Theresa Rebeck in this captivating female bonding dramedy, though Babe's depiction of problematic romance mostly avoids male-bashing. He forces his emotionally befuddled damsels to take ultimate responsibility for their relationships—whether romantic, familial, or friendly. Director Dorothy Lyman deftly leads a fine ensemble in exploring Babe's thought-provoking themes.

The play takes place in a church reception room in New Hampshire, where nervous bride-to-be Annie (Jennifer Kwantes) is experiencing cold feet as relatives arrive for the impending wedding rehearsal. The men are delayed for unknown reasons, which gives the distaff family members a chance to rummage through assorted family baggage. Feisty Southern belle Dixie (Pamela Clay), a would-be entertainer who's down on her luck, was secretly hired for a singing gig at the wedding by a male member of the wedding party. Though Dixie's life hasn't exactly been a bed of roses, she has a catalytic effect, forcing the women to come to terms with their troubled romantic histories while simultaneously mending the broken fences among them.

Though Babe's script is more character-driven than narrative-focused, he ensures that each character has a moment of epiphany, tying the whole package up with a fairly neat bow. This seems too pat to ring entirely true, especially after he makes several points about messiness in life and relationships. One could also quibble about the uppity, socially conscious women allowing the unwanted singer to stay so long and to speak so personally to them. Yet the dialogue, characterizations, and themes are so fresh and invigorating that these transgressions are forgivable.

Most performances are pitch-perfect, with Kwantes the standout as the vulnerable but deceptively resilient Annie, blossoming from woebegone waif to winner. Clay comes across as a sassy designing woman, à la Delta Burke, bringing warmth and wry humor to her pivotal role. As Annie's outspoken old-maid aunt, Sarah Benoit surmounts the potentially strident aspects of this character, illuminating a middle-aged woman's journey to acceptance and serenity as she harbors a major secret. Jackie O'Brien excels as Annie's widowed mother, rationalizing her tolerance of her late husband's abusive behavior, calling it loyalty. As Annie's cynical and emotionally repressed sister, Ursula Whittaker overstates her character's detached quality in the early scenes, suggesting a flat performance more than an aloof character, though she redeems herself in the touching climactic scenes.

Melissa Sweeney's bare-bones set and lighting designs are serviceable, placing the emphasis on the superb performers. This memorable debut vehicle whets our appetite for more ITA productions.

"Taken in Marriage," presented by and at the ITA Workshop Stage, 10015 Venice Blvd., L.A. In repertory. Nov. 22-Dec. 22. $15. (310) 839-8312.

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