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‘Pyretown’ smolders and disturbs 

There's a lot of resonance in John Belluso's title, Pyretown. The community he looks at is full of combustible elements that fuel not only personal dramas but also hot issues. Geva Theatre Center commissioned and developed this thoughtful, affecting play, and is now presenting its world premiere production with considerable fire.

            Belluso set his play in a fictional New England town, but he writes that he was well aware of background parallels in Rochester. The characters lament the deprivations and difficulties resulting from the closing of Pyretown's "Pellman County Hospital," which parallels the closing of Rochester's Genesee Hospital. Exploring the struggles, complexities, and frustrations of managed health care, Pyretown focuses on a struggling mother of three, a much younger man in a wheelchair, and a pregnant doctor who used to work in the closed-down Pellman Hospital and now has a desk job in an HMO.

            In Act I, "Actuarial Risk," Dr. Rebecca Perez reflects on having observed Harry and Louise's first meeting when Louise automatically helped Harry reach an object in a grocery store. Rebecca finds that gesture a memorable image of human connection. Now, on her first day as a "Utilization Review Physician" at Redgrove Health Guard Inc., Rebecca still thinks of those two as she tries to adjust to dealing with patients solely on the phone. She hopes that she can combine efficiency with mercy. Meanwhile, Harry and Louise have become friends and eventually lovers. But both have serious financial and emotional problems, and Louise's sickly daughter's complaints sound like a smoldering hazard.

            Harry speaks memorably to Louise about learning to feel a part of life, to reach out, and not turn people away: "I never feel cracked or broken when I feel desire." But as he and Louise connect, we find Rebecca fearing that she is withdrawing into institutional jargon and unfeeling denial of needed medical services.

            In Act II, "Capitation," Rebecca's job is threatened by her occasional caring approval of health care that her uncaring superiors (pun intended) want her to reject. Yet she reflects on "doctors bragging about the extra income they have earned, substantial amounts of money... simply by limiting referrals." Her subsequent handling of Louise's application to fund examinations of her daughter, who sometimes coughs up blood, leads to climactic changes. Louise goes back to her divorced, abusive husband, who is earning enough to support her children, and Rebecca faces dismissal from the HMO.

            If this abbreviated plot summary sounds superficial or melodramatic, Pyretown certainly is neither. Himself "a disabled, wheelchair-using man," Belluso treats his characters and themes without a hint of sentimentality. Their complex interactions and fates are compelling and almost uncomfortably truthful, but staged theatrically.

            Rebecca narrates and comments throughout, and we see only the three characters onstage. Louise's children, the nurses, and others are spoken to but not seen. The constant scene changes are accomplished with quick moving, suggestive set pieces, furniture, and props. Like Geva's previous production, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, Belluso's play is more talk than action, but plays emotionally with three strong acting roles.

            Showiest is Jan Leslie Harding's Louise, who must make us "see" and care about her invisible children. Hers is a multifaceted, very appealing, and painfully involving performance. Louise moves from control to insecurity, then to sexual attraction, and finally to terrible panic and resolution.

            Christopher Thornton played Harry in Geva's 2002-staged reading of Pyretown and has acted in two other Belluso plays. His portrayal is richly authentic and physically convincing. Despite his program bio that lists such super-active plays as the swashbuckling Zastrozzi, I could understand the woman behind me asking her companion whether Thornton isn't really a wheelchair-bound actor.

            Sue-Anne Morrow mostly appears standing or sitting still as a physically passive observer or person reacting on the phone, but she gives Rebecca a decided physicality, so that we can see her advancing pregnancy and declining self-assurance. Hers are the most thoughtful, extended comments, and she manages to make us think and feel about them.

            Tim Farrell directed Geva's original staged reading of Pyretown and no doubt shares credit for its development with dramaturg Marge Betley, who commissioned the work. With Rob Koharchic's handsome framework set of translucent panels, and Andrew Hill's closely attuned dramatic lighting, Farrell's fluid staging clarifies the action's changing locales and assists its fluctuating rhythms. A few shelves with groceries on them identify a grocery store, and the actors' movement locates its aisles. A wall rises to make way for a bed to slide onstage with its two lovemaking figures dimly seen.

            Meghan E. Healey's costumes are appropriate enough to never intrude. Neither do the very supportive bits of music that neatly provide transition and mood; I guess Dan Roach's sound design deserves credit for them. The overall stage poetry of this potent but subtle play is the mark of a fine ensemble effort.

Pyretown, by John Belluso, directed by Tim Farrell, plays through December 7 at Geva Theatre Center's Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12.50 to $25. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org

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