On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.

2006_07_arts_angel.jpgIt’s easy enough for everyone to condemn slavery as it existed in the past, on a large scale with whole tribes shipped across the Atlantic to perish on New World plantations, or when it involves children in sweatshops or women lured away from home and forced into the sex trade. Under such circumstances, it is patently obvious that the idea of “owning” a person is despicable and should be swiftly and harshly dealt with. But plenty of people who might agree with that may nonetheless harbor feelings of ownership of others in their life – friends, lovers, offspring, and the like. And unless something happens to twist or magnify the effects of those feelings, for the most part they go unremarked and don’t do much harm. But when the heady sense of ownership does get out of control, as happens in John-Richard Thompson’s thought-provoking new play Angel Mountain, one realizes how wrong it is on any scale.

The main story takes place decades ago, but is framed and narrated by a young doctor (Abby Royle) who has just returned to her home town; on her first house call, to Michael Alden’s place, she finds that instead of his brother being sick, as she thought, he is dead – and that’s just the start of a sequence of discoveries that are a lot more than she bargained for. Most of them come as she reads a journal Michael has written about his family history: just after WWII, Tom Alden (Arthur Aulisi), a music lover, mathematician, and widower, is living with his younger son Bard (Danny DeFerrari) in a grand old farmhouse amidst a cherry orchard; Michael (Noah Trepanier), his older son, just home from lackluster Army service. The friction between the men due to trouble past – the dark secret of the mother’s death – and present – an energetic, vivacious French-Canadian woman, Angele LaMontagne (Jessica Dickey), comes to work for them as a maid and, inevitably but unfortunately, enchants them all – structures the thickening plot. Tom (played by Aulisi with great nuance and multiple shades of feeling) is clearly deeply unhappy and determined to take it out on his sons, particularly Bard, who he has tortured so much by an aggressive, active neglect over the years that Bard, who was already a bit “simple,” has gone somewhat off his head and come to think he can capture souls via a disturbing method I won’t reveal here. His and Tom’s loneliness, and Michael’s sense of failure, of being stalled in life, combine to make for a rather unhealthy combination when Angele enters the picture. Their language quickly incorporates the unmistakable vocabulary of possessiveness that inspired the opening lines of this review, setting up a rapid descent into tragedy whose consequences one hopes the audience, at least, might learn something from, even if most of the characters are beyond relief.

Involving though the story is, I think I would have found it more so were it told without using the lens of the doctor’s house call, because though Royle is talented and plays the part gamely, it is really just a distraction, sometimes irritating, sometimes puzzling, from the Aldens’ tale. If she were more of an active participant, or if we knew more of her own life and could see parallels with the Aldens’, so we could understand what she might be getting out of the experience, that would be one thing, but as it is she just gets in the way. Also distracting at times is Dickey’s take on Angele, who is intended to be an ambitious, optimistic woman (she’s trying to make her way to LA to become an actress), but whose peppiness and penchant for singing snatches of a single song and quoting from old movies in a dramatic French accent becomes sort of grating; and then there’s the chorus of “the Andrews Sisters” that sings at the side of the stage intermittently and which I wavered between appreciating and seeing as gratuitous extra period color, when Neal Wilkinson’s fabulous set already provides all we need. Happily, the characters of Mike and Bard are done just right, with Trepanier exuding palpable frustration edging into malice and DeFerrari convincingly embodying Bard’s wistfulness and sweet naivete; and even more importantly, the playwright keeps the momentum going without allowing things to descend into melodrama, so that you’re actively engaged, wanting to find out the truth, not just waiting for the ending. Despite its flaws, Angel Mountain is as it's advertised, a full night in the theatre, with much to admire as you watch and plenty to chew over and wonder about later.

Produced by AndHow Theater at the Connelly Theater // 220 E. 4th St. // Through July 29, Thurs.-Sat. 8pm // Tickets via Smarttix