In one of many quirkily touching scenes from Jessica Goldberg’s Refuge (Playwrights Horizons), Amy, in bed with near-stranger Sam, presses her nose to his naked chest to breathe in the scent of Mexico. He fled there to outrun the pain of his brother’s death—a dream of escape Amy hungrily embraces.
She’s got plenty to flee. Mom and Dad trashed the family, taking off for vacation—and for good. They left Amy with their reject kids: Nat, a stuttering spastic, and Becca, an Ecstasy-popping, rave-crazed weirdo. Both are utterly dependent on their older sister, who’s struggling to hold herself together while taking care of them. Enter Sam, a drifter she’s picked up in a bar for a ferocious bout of sex. He’s so lonely that this freaky family, with its stranglehold bonds of loyalty, looks like his salvation.
This premise could be cloying, but Goldberg writes with edgy, unsentimental specificity (the play won her the 1999 Susan Smith Blackburn Award). The characters are eccentric and real, and the dialogue snaps with humor, vulnerability, and brash defensiveness. Neil Pepe directs at a stylish pace with quick shifts of mood and occasional blasts of heavy metal. But his ensemble work is sensitive and nuanced.
Each character is beautifully delineated—by the playwright and the performers—balancing the tension between longing and protectiveness, resentment and love. Catherine Kellner’s Amy is a loving wreck, fighting to keep from feeling while nearly bursting apart. Chris Bauer gives Sam an innocent, groping quality that strips away his saccharine potential. Becca is played with manic verve and an undertone of desolation by Mandy Siegfried, and Chris Messina is a knockout as Nat, the wisecracking, tragic invalid in a neck brace. Altogether, their tics and dysfunctions add up to a sweetly happy family in an era when “happy” is a relative term.