If your moviegoing tastes lean toward the modestly budgeted independent film, especially those small, sad stories about underachievers and their prosaic-but-tough lives, often signaled by a setting in a cold, second-tier city, or by the casting of the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney or Philip Seymour Hoffman, then Deirdre O'Connor's new play "Assisted Living" would merit an injection of live theater into your current entertainment diet.
Granted, there are no marquee names in the Profiles Theatre production in the little Wrigleyville storefront theater known as The Second Stage (although I would not be surprised to see this script become such a movie). But there is a quartet of exceptionally honest and exquisitely cast Chicago actors and a modestly scaled but very compelling new play. It comes from an exceptionally talented, Brooklyn-based writer for stage and screen who is choosing to premiere her work at a small theater here rather than see it workshopped or processed to death in some massive institution. And — in no small measure by getting its regular actors out of the way and letting the unpretentious but careful director Joe Jahraus get the performers this particular play needs — Profiles has given "Assisted Living" just the right amount of help.
At the beginning of the play, set near Boston, we meet Anne, a lower-middle-class woman in her late 30s who has put her mostly unenviable life on hold to take care of a raging mother with dementia (whom we hear but do not see). In the first scene, we do see Anne (played, with a deft mix of defiance and sadness by Stacy Stoltz) interviewing a potential home-help aide named Levi (Jordan Stacey, a young actor very adept at holding his character on the edge). Although an incessant talker skilled at leveraging self-deprecation, Levi immediately seems like trouble. By his own admission, he is an alcoholic with a thin resume and a tendency to get fired. But Anne is lonely and stressed, her mom is difficult and sometimes violent, and this guy seems to offers a solution to myriad problems.
So will he be Anne's home-help angel and offer mutual redemption or, at least, mutual escape? Or are his intentions malevolent? That's one question that keeps you glued to the stage, even as Anne's wholly unreliable brother, Jimmy (Layne Manzer) makes an appearance and starts, as wholly unreliable brothers so often do, to express opinions with a level of force not matched by his past record of familial assistance.
Manzer (a gruff, macho and sad-eyed actor I don't think I've seen before) is wholly believable as a guy facing down middle-age without really getting his act together and, in the best moment of Jahraus' fast-moving yet frequently tender production, you feel like you see right into the belly of his insecurities. The last soul of this quartet is a pregnant waitress named Christina (Shannon Hollander), who also finds herself faced with more responsibility than she was anticipating. Hollander is also terrific; you feel like you're walking right alongside her initially optimistic young woman as harsher realities dawn.
"Assisted Living" most obviously nails how the need to take care of an aging parent can interrupt lives that — especially at this economic moment — are already barely staying above water, and can cause rifts between siblings who feel their levels of sacrifice are unequal. But this shrewdly titled play is about much more.
After all, the precipitous rise in the need for in-home caregivers — that most essential yet underpaid of jobs — is an economic lifeline for some. O'Connor's mind, though, feels mostly focused on the biggest question for someone who loves an ailing family member, their own problems notwithstanding: Can you trust?
When: Through Dec. 18
Where: The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org