The novelty of the fledgling Orfeo Group's production of "Look Back in Anger," closing this weekend, is that tickets are free. The more important information is that it's terrific.
"Look Back in Anger," the John Osborne play that helped inspire two significant terms of 1950s drama - "Angry Young Men" and "kitchen-sink drama" - is better known in classrooms than in performance; it's an icon of its era, but an infrequently staged one. Its talkiness, outmoded three-act structure, and virulent sexism help explain that. But, as the Orfeo production reminds us, its vital fury, its dramatic crackle, and its vivid evocation both of specific characters and of their larger society make it worth seeing as well as reading.
It's hard to imagine being shocked, as 1956 audiences reportedly were, by the play's grubby realism and violent brutality; we've had far too much of that in the ensuing decades to be surprised by much of anything now. But what does still shock is the mix of cruelty, lust, fury, and grief that propels Osborne's characters together and apart. It's not surprising; it's just startling in its complexity, contradictoriness, and raw power. In a word, shocking. Like touching a live wire.
Part of what makes Orfeo's production work is that its limitations become strengths. The tiny, cramped, muggy space of the Factory Theatre intensifies the claustrophobia of the play's setting, a dingy attic flat in England's industrial Midlands. Cristina Todesco's artfully cluttered set is clearly furnished with cheap castoffs, just as the actual flat would be. And, with only 45 seats, the theater puts the audience right in this grungy room with Jimmy, the aforesaid angry young man, and with his timid wife, their meek lodger, and the brittle upper-class friend whose arrival is the match to their tinder.
But the greatest strength of this staging is its blazingly talented young cast. As Jimmy, Daniel Berger-Jones broods and storms with a barely contained ferocity that's more frightening to watch than a completely unleashed performance would be; the unseen chains that bind him only underscore the furious strength that strains against them. He's a caged ogre, looming all the larger for the tininess of his lair.
Liz Hayes has a less showy but no less demanding role as Alison, Jimmy's meek wife and favorite target. Osborne makes it almost impossible, at least at first, to understand why any woman would stay with such a man, but Hayes gives Alison a sense of inwardness and reserve that let us see her retreating into herself whenever his attacks grow too much to bear.
And, speaking of bears, even the cloying moments when Jimmy and Alison play at being a bear and a squirrel - furry, incompatible wild creatures, escaping the pain of being human - become almost watchable here, since the actors never let the sickly sweetness completely obliterate the harsh tensions beneath it. The unhappy menagerie is rounded out by Risher Reddick, giving a gentle, touching performance as the mouse of a lodger who's in love with the squirrel and in awe of the bear.
And then Helena shows up. She's Alison's friend from her previous life, a world of upper-class privilege, inherited tea sets, and social conventions that mask even the wildest emotions in polite platitudes - "The Platitude from Outer Space," as Jimmy amusingly puts it. She professes horror at Jimmy's cruelty, urges Alison to flee, even sets her escape in motion by summoning Alison's father (a fusty but never stereotypical retired colonel back from India, played by Steven Barkhimer with becomingly understated regret and quiet bewilderment at a changed Britain) - then turns out to have her own far less noble motives for getting her friend away from Jimmy.
As Helena, Georgia Lyman is simply wonderful: a twittery, snooty, empty-headed society girl when she first appears, but with layers of lust, earthiness, daring, and ruthlessness just beneath. Like Jimmy, she's a horrid, selfish creature. But Osborne's lasting achievement, beautifully realized in this ambitious production, is to make us care about his monsters even as we recoil.