When the theater "holds a mirror up to nature," it's not always a pretty sight. The nature reflected there is frail, cruel, stupid and cold as often as it is brave, kind, bright and sympathetic. But the reflection can order and analyze human experience, making it easier for us to see our own lives in perspective. If the play is good enough, if the production is smart enough, no matter what the details of plot, it will resonate with most of us, however different our choices have been.

Mart Crowley's A Breeze From the Gulf, at the Theatre on Broadway, mirrors the author's own youth and family situation. Dysfunctional families crop up abundantly in the theater--so many artists have endured extreme abuse, it seems. But there's more to this particular family than degradation. An inkling of tenderness and care running intermittently through even the worst of times.

Father Teddy is a devout Catholic and an even more devout alcoholic, while Mama Loraine is a casual Catholic and a devoted pill-popper. Son Michael watches his parents' conditions worsen over a ten-year period as he struggles with their depravity and the nasty, abusive dispositions they indulge while fried. Young Michael suffers the pains of hell--the hell his parents have created for themselves and each other--and he finds nothing that can help himself or them. Religion is seen as comforting, but adamantly ineffectual in saving this sad family from either their excesses or the remorse that attends such excess.

Yet despite their terrible choices, love surfaces in odd moments of sobriety, though these moments get fewer and more and more obscured by the family's deterioration. What stands out is the realization that love is sanity. Each moment of kindness and communication becomes a little island of lucidity and safety in this sea of physical and emotional anguish.

Director Terry Dodd opens his production with a monologue he put together from Crowley's stage directions and author's notes about the intent of the play. Darrett Sanders, who plays Michael, walks on stage and tells you about the rooms of the house in which the action takes place, the way the set should look and the character he is about to play. This odd but engaging device helps us feel the drama as a reminiscence. When the actor then breaks the fourth wall by looking at the audience from time to time, we feel the weight of these events as they would weigh on the character. We really have been instructed--albeit obliquely--to take part, to consider these characters and their actions as if they occurred in our own past.

It works, too. When Michael holds his dying father and repeats the Act of Contrition with him, we feel the profound affection that slices through years of resentment and religious disillusionment. Affection is all that can help the tormented Teddy. Another scene with Loraine later in the play drives home Michael's revulsion for his mother's degeneration, his anger at the past she has inflicted on him and, ultimately, the liberating possibility of forgiveness.

Dodd's powerful direction illuminates every nook and cranny of a difficult play. There is so much intelligence and so much restraint, the material never feels pretentious. I only wish he had cut twenty minutes from the script--it might benefit from a good, rigorous tightening.

The marvelous young actor Darrett Sanders is capable of layering a role like an old pro. He plays Michael as a sensitive youth--innocent, not stupid, as older actors sometimes play youth. And when the older Michael confronts all the family demons, Sanders can turn on a dime in his portrayal of conflicting emotions. Arthur Payton is perfect as Teddy, self-pitying and cruel when drunk, self-deceived but loving and frightened when sober. He manages to make us care for Teddy, to see through him without hating him.

Erin Hart is superb in a ferociously complex role as Loraine. It was a great pleasure to see her as the daughter-in-law in Dodd's production of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful. But Loraine gives Hart the opportunity to really stretch her powers.

There's always something to be said for that mirror held up to nature. The image we see might just help us live a different picture.

A Breeze From the Gulf, through February 13 at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 777-3292.

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