A kind of chill stalks David Hare's "The Secret Rapture" from the moment light slices through black as a woman nervously opens a door and is startled to find her sister sitting in the dark room. Their father has died; his body is on the bed. Lives will be changed, not by the event of death, which is only a trigger, but by the forces of interpersonal and public politics that will rush in to fill the void.
Hare has made no secret of his fascination with how larger societal forces shape our private lives. He tackled that notion in "Plenty," a psychological dissection of post-World War II England seen through the collapse of one woman. In "Rapture," currently on stage at South Coast Repertory, he has taken the fallout of Thatcherism and created an unlikely morality play through the secular canonization of another.
Of the sisters mentioned earlier, Marion (Bairbre Dowling) is a junior minister in a hidebound conservative government while Isobel (Caroline Goodall) is an artist. They have only one thing in common: their late father's widow, Katherine (Libby Boone), a much younger woman, alcoholic and incapable of coping responsibly. She becomes their unequally shared responsibility.
Isobel loves, lives and works with Irwin (Simon Templeman), another artist with whom she ekes out a contented living. She is interior, tender, idealistic. Marion is exterior, self-righteous and, by her own eventual admission, incapable of feeling. She is married to Tom (Hal Landon Jr.), a born milquetoast and born-again Baptist who heads something called Christians in Business.
The road to destruction is subtle, even if Hare's play isn't always. He is not always able to keep Marion from seeming too awful and Isobel from seeming too good. First Marion allows Katherine to inflict herself on Isobel. Later Marion and Tom, in a "Christian" desire to "help," bedevil Isobel's and Irwin's life with self-serving temptations that alter chemistries and wreak ultimate chaos.
But "Secret Rapture" is not about plot or cause, but about effect. It's about the malice of weakness and the powerlessness of strength. It's about currents and resistance, humanity and honor. In short, it is dangerous, difficult stuff.
Under David Emmes' spare and precise direction, the design team and the cast are a hands-across-the-sea mixer, with the excellent Goodall and Templeman hailing from England, along with set designer Robert Jones, whose supply of ever-changing, meticulously detailed locales would seem to defy the logistics of wing space.
Boone is a vibrant manic-depressive as Katherine, and Dowling's Marion is shrill and obnoxious enough in her tailored suits to conjure up the inevitable associations. Elizabeth Dennehy provides some entertaining man-eating moments as her shallow assistant Rhonda, while Landon's apologetic piety and limpness seem a loaded act of perpetual self-erasure.
The play, however, which is destined to arouse polemics, pivots around the complex Isobel and, only because he is the instrument of her fate, around Irwin. Templeman manages to embody weakness with plenty of presence, while Goodall's generous and inviting Isobel thoroughly eludes self-pity.