STONEHAM - The British actress/writer Maureen O'Brien is a serial crime novelist - seven books to date - but relatively inexperienced when it comes to playwriting. Her only stage work, "The Cutting" (1992), took quite a while to cross the Atlantic, despite well-received productions in London and elsewhere abroad. Recently optioned as a film, it's now enjoying a belated American premiere at Stoneham Theatre.
"The Cutting" is a perfectly fine play - even a superior one, as interpreted here by two excellent performers. Rachel Harker plays a child psychiatrist reluctantly treating a 33-year-old accused of matricide, and Eve Kagan is the resolutely mute prisoner. The one drawback is that, having been exposed to hundreds of episodes of "Law & Order" since the play was written, audience members may find its arc a bit pat. Damaged childhood equals deviant behavior: Check.
Viewed in retrospect, the 40-minute first act is mere prologue, though it's quite a coup how Harker maintains tension as her character, Alex (a male in the original script), finds herself sucked into filling the void of Judith's semi-catatonic silence. But the play must progress: Were Judith never to speak, it would have nowhere to go.
Kagan perfectly captures the defeated body posture of a crushed soul. When Judith finally opens up, it's with the creaky paroxysms of a long-blocked pipe: She judders as she arduously releases each word and phrase. It seems a flaw in the text, though, to suggest that Judith's syntax would have degraded to toddler/foreigner level in a mere seven months. It comes as a relief when she graduates to relatively normal patterns of speech and begins to spill her story - initially within a hypothetical "If I Did It" framework, which turns out to be not that far from the truth.
It wouldn't do to reveal just what Judith did, and how, and with whom (it's Alex's job to ferret out the grisly details - for therapeutic, rather than incriminating, purposes). Let's just say that as a crime writer, O'Brien here comes into her element: There are details so disturbing, so vivid, you'll have a hard time shaking the imagery. There's even an offbeat love story at the core, and Judith comes impishly alive recalling gawky lust.
But if I'm stinting on details, it's not just for fear of spoilers. The production has audio problems. In David Wilson's sound design, the taped playbacks of Alex's session notes are barely decipherable, even from the front rows. Also, Eve does much of her confessing in the form of a Cockney-inflected children's song delivered from a huddled crouch, in such a way that the dropped clues are just that - dropped.
There are visual challenges as well. Gianni Downs's set, a wall-less office plunked atop the suggestion of a rocky tor (reminiscent of Judith's cliffside home, not to mention her psychological isolation), has us gazing up into a bank of fluorescent light fixtures. Glare aside, the design seems at odds with a recurrent theme: how deadeningly drab and confining - but to Judith, comforting - is this institutional setting.
Production flaws aside, "The Cutting" - like Bryony Lavery's more effective "Frozen" - offers a compassionate glimpse into the inner workings of a miscreant seemingly beyond the pale, but ultimately sympathetic.