CHAUTAUQUA - There is an astonishing piece of theater on the stage of the Bratton Family Theater, this week, as the Chautauqua Theater Company presents the world premiere of the play ''Fifty Ways'' by Kate Fodor.
The play was commissioned by the company for this production. The play is a sensitive and very moving examination of a married couple, whose relationship has come to be deeply stressed. The title was inspired by the Paul Simon song advising ways to leave one's lover, in which he advised ''Slip out the back, Jack; Make a new plan, Stan ...''
The central couple in the play are Nina and Adam. Nina is a brilliant and incisive woman, a former college professor with her Ph.D., who has given up her teaching career to stay home with their son, Grant.
Adam is a published novelist who has enjoyed some commercial success, although the couple is comfortable, but not rich. The plot unfolds rather like an onion, showing layer after layer of stress within this marriage. Nina prides herself on her standards, in every element of her life. Adam loves her deeply, but he writhes under the realization that she loves him to a degree, but she feels he is somehow beneath her. Adam needs to love someone who doesn't feel contempt for him, but his self-pity causes him to choose his time and place for that other love, as poorly as can be imagined.
Grant feels compelled to live up to his mother's standards, but to view the world with his father's warmth and affection. The stress is incredible.
Obviously this is a play of enormous depth, and yet when the audience wasn't gasping aloud at the horrible things these people could say to or about one another, we were laughing outrageously. Director Ethan McSweeny has steered his actors through the minefield. Any more humor would have trivialized the circumstances. Any less would have made the evening too heavy. His choices were very well made, indeed.
Vivienne Benesch was clearly comfortable in this role which the playwright announced had been written with the actress in mind. Somehow, she taught us why this character would be loved by everyone in her family, and yet how she could deal with them, at times, in ways which could only be described as savage.
Michael Gaston was handsome and very well spoken as Adam. The audience liked him, enjoyed his character, yet couldn't have doubted that he might be insensitive to the degree to which his actions battered the people he loved.
Josh Tobin one of the Conservatory actors, played their high school age son in yet again another necessarily beautiful state of balance, between childish naivete and the kind of deep, genuine understandings and feelings which the young sometimes produce, to take everyone by surprise.
Leah Anderson, another Conservatory actor, played Nina's stepsister with maturity and warmth. Fodor's script has also put her on a razor's edge. She is largely alone in the world, and wants to find shelter in this family, but at the same time, she is emerging into adulthood, needing to assert herself and her own self-worth.
Set designer Lee Savage puts the action in the living room of their country house, in Woodstock, N.Y., with another great balance. It looks homey, and as though they would want to be here as much as possible, yet with just enough wear and tear visible, to let us know that the house, like its central marriage, is damaged and in danger of falling down, and they may or may not have the resources to restore it.
I thought the production was terrific. The language and subject matter are not for the unusually sensitive, nor for the very young, but otherwise, I recommend it highly. ''Fifty Ways'' continues through July 29 at the Bratton Family Theater.