Tarell Alvin McCraney's Run, Mourner, Run worked some powerful magic on me — but how? Why? In many ways, it just shouldn't.
The characters in this hourlong one-act are richly realized in director Matt Pfeiffer's Flashpoint Theatre Co. production, yet nearly all unlikable. Keith Conallen plays Dean, a gay sad-sack mired in a small town by his invalid mother; Brian McCann plays slimy local tyrant Terrell; and Gerard Joseph is his equally ethics-deficient rival, Brown. Terrell bribes Dean to seduce Brown for some good ol'-fashioned blackmail: an ugly, racist, gay-bashing tale.
Adapting Randall Kenan's short story, McCraney maintains the writer's omniscience: Characters slide from third-person description of themselves into first-person action. Narrating events as they occur seems redundant, but this observer's point of view reveals surprising intimacy. A line like "Ray gave a smile that could give a bull a hard-on" vividly nails a passing moment, and description such as "The very air in the room changed color" underscores action as acting (or lighting) simply can't. Distance, paradoxically, brings us closer.
The production around those words works splendidly, too. A terrific ensemble bursts into song snippets that neatly frame the action, and create vivid personalities with few lines. Melanye Finister barely speaks as Brown's Aunt Helen, but hovers ominously, as does Aimé Kelly as Brown's wife, Gloria, who makes the play's difficult ending superbly understated. Jake Blouch and Jonathan Mulhearn are ominously familiar as Terrell's attack-dog sons, and Amanda Grove makes Dean's mother's suffering palpable.
Run, Mourner, Run ultimately soars through Conallen, who bares the aching hollowness in Dean's tawdry soul. Somehow, in this most unreal style of theater, Dean's plight conjures genuine emotion.
Through Nov. 20, $18-$20, Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 215-665-9720, flashpointtheatre.org.