In her curtain speeches and program notes, Horizon Theatre’s Lisa Adler confesses a special affinity for Wendy Wasserstein. A leading voice of a generation of feminist baby boomers, the playwright died of leukemia in 2006, after documenting her audience’s personal and political concerns with vitality and wit. Looking at photos of the author of “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig,” you might even notice a certain physical resemblance to the sparky, pint-size Adler.
The director’s transparent tenderness for Wasserstein shines through in her riveting production of “Third,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist’s final work, which runs at the Little Five Points playhouse through October 11.
“Third” concerns a brilliant English professor obsessed with the Bush administration’s war on Iraq who vents her anger on a seemingly conservative college student there on a wrestling scholarship. When menopausal liberal caricature Professor Laurie Jameson accuses Woodson Bull III (who prefers the titular nickname “Third”) of plagiarizing a paper on “King Lear,” she gets voted down by her colleagues, and her sense of self cracks open in a series of ego-obliterating crises involving her college-age daughter, her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and a colleague who is battling cancer.
In the process, Jameson is transformed from a bullying feminist Queen Lear to a disconsolate Cordelia.
Her understanding of both herself and Shakespeare’s towering patriarchal tragedy are re-ordered. Wasserstein, who saw “Third” produced for the first time as she was nearly in extremis with cancer, offers up a thoughtful and provocative meditation on death and dying, parental relationships and the blind alleyways of prejudice. Adler, for her part, seems to play down the play’s humor in favor of pity and pathos, so that “Third” tastes more like strong medicine than syrupy-sweet Valentine.
As Laurie, the always stellar Mary Lynn Owen forgoes her comedic impulses to deliver a shattering portrait that is matched almost point for point by Will Bradley’s Third. The scene in which Laurie struggles to explain the hurt in her heart is devastating to watch, as is Third’s eventual despair and desolation.
By the end of the story, the young and idealistic Third has been infected with the bitterness and cynicism of his accuser, yet both are redeemed by the possibilities of forgiveness and new beginnings. Tom Thon’s take on Laurie’s father — lost in a Lear-like fog, howling at the storm — is heartbreaking. As Nancy — the professor who is sympathetic to Third, even as she undergoes a bone-marrow transplant and begins a new romance — Marianne Fraulo is by turns deeply affecting and delightful. Cara Mantella seems fully inside the head of Laurie’s daughter, Emily, but this fascinating young actress doesn’t offer much that we haven’t seen her do elsewhere.
Overstuffed with issues and literary references (from “Our Town” to “Pride and Prejudice”), “Third” grinds along to its conclusion. It’s a tad too long, somewhat artificial in its structure and can feel a bit like a mishmash of Margaret Edson’s “Wit” and Rebecca Gilman’s “Spinning Into Butter.” (The former told the story of a brilliant English professor’s ordeal with ovarian cancer, while the latter was a tense treatise on racism in the college classroom.) Thus you may find that the campus witch-hunt theme feels a little déjà vu: You know you’ve been here before, you just can’t remember where exactly.
All that aside, this smart and solid straight play adds welcome variety to an Atlanta theater season that’s so far been fixated on the likes of “Grey Gardens” and “Come Fly With Me.” Adler’s care with the Wasserstein legacy is to be commended.