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Review: In 'Communion,' it's all over but the shouting

Correspondent

In his 2010 work “Communion,” Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor explores the interconnected lives of three women.

One is a two-years-sober recovering alcoholic who happens to be dying. Another is her born-again, angry daughter. The third is the mother’s therapist, a lesbian whose professional detachment seems to provoke rage in her “client,” the shrink’s term of choice for those she treats.

Fort Lauderdale’s peripatetic Primal Forces theater company has just opened its production of “Communion” at Empire Stage. Artistic director Keith Garrson has staged the show on a starkly minimalist set by Jodi Dellaventura and Natalie Tavares, letting the characters’ words transport the audience into worlds real and imagined, present and past.

“Communion” runs a taut 75 minutes, unfolding in three scenes featuring two of the women in each. It’s not a flawless play — far from it — but what keeps Primal Forces’ production from turning into yet another episode of “Dr. Phil” are the truths underpinning the women’s interactions, the imagery running through MacIvor’s script and a fiercely magnetic performance by veteran South Florida actor Kim Ostrenko.

Ostrenko plays Leda, a woman in torment as she faces the end of a life full of trouble. Her sessions with her therapist, Carolyn (Jacqueline Laggy), allow her to blow off steam —which she does, volcanolike — as Carolyn coolly listens and only occasionally prompts Leda with a brief follow-up question.

Leda, with alcohol as her enabler, has made a mess of her life, particularly when it came to raising her daughter, Ann (Jenna Wyatt). As a teen, Leda’s “Annie” ran with a wild crowd and rebelled against a mom too out of it to actually parent properly. Now, the born-again Ann is not long out of prison for vandalizing an abortion clinic, and the women haven’t seen each other for months. Carolyn, finally yielding to Leda’s repeated demands for actual advice, suggests a mother-daughter visit before time runs out.

That visit of reckoning happens, complete with several pieces of surprising news for Leda. The “communion” between mother and daughter involves shouting, a tug of war over salvation and Leda’s 11th-hour attempt to give Ann something lasting.

The final scene brings together the play’s two survivors, Carolyn and Ann. Carolyn is on the verge of personal and professional change. Ann, after several months of upheaval, is insistent on getting some answers from Carolyn, therapist-client privilege be damned. Ann is, finally, a feisty and contentious apple who didn’t fall far from Leda’s tree.

That last scene pales in comparison to the first two, in part because Leda is the most interesting and fully developed character, and in part because Ostrenko’s performance in the first two scenes is so commanding and so rich in detail. An Equity actor with a host of stage, TV and film credits, the Carbonell Award-winning Ostrenko has polished her craft since her days with Miami’s groundbreaking Acme Acting Company. Her Leda is mercurial, aggressive, only too aware of her own “sins” and, finally, at peace.

Laggy, also a fine actor, is restricted by Carolyn’s necessary restraint in the first scene, but she’s able to show a range of feeling in the third one. Wyatt is playing a woman who is judgmental, annoying and nearly impossible, and she does so convincingly.

Because the set is so simple and dark, Nate Sykes’ lighting, David Hart’s sound design and Alberto Arroyo’s costumes have to enliven the world of “Communion,” and they do.

The play itself is hardly profound. But Garsson and Primal Forces are offering audiences the chance to experience a burnished and moving performance from the deeply impressive Ostrenko.

“Communion” is running through Feb. 11 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler DrIve, in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $30. To order, call 866-811-4111 or visit PrimalForces.com.

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