John Pollono's play Lost Girls, at Theatre Exile, starts out as a TV sitcom, full of snappy one-liners and predictable small-town, low-income worries (always "a pizza and a six-pack away from bouncing the electric bill"). This morphs into a melodrama full of sturm und family drang, but under Joe Canuso's fine direction and with a pitch-perfect cast, this run-of-the-mill material is transformed into an engrossing theatrical evening.
The lost girls of the title are three generations in a New Hampshire family: Linda (Catharine Slusar, a standout among standouts), her daughter Maggie (Molly Ward), and her daughter Erica (Susanne Collins). They come from tough stock, "women with hearts of iron," whose children were born when they themselves were teenagers. Their hard lives are filled with anger and sarcasm and bad decisions.
Maggie's ex-husband, Lou (Sean Bradley), is a state trooper and a recovering alcoholic; his second wife, Penny (Amy Frear), is sweet and even-tempered and has more grit than her prayerful manner leads us to expect. They all get together when Erica and a boy from school (Trevor William Fayle) steal Maggie's Honda and drive off into a blizzard. There are frantic worries, accusations, and desperate phone calls, but the snowstorm knocks out the cell tower, so the anxiety -- basic to the plot -- is sustained for the show's 90 minutes.
All this is crammed initially into a tiny kitchen (set design by Colin McIlvaine). But suddenly the scene shifts to a motel room as Studio X's stage revolves and we follow the teenage runaways, living out their own sturm und drang with more backstories and more violence and more plot.
There is a surprise buried in the heart of the play (no spoilers) and way too many backstories; Pollono apparently needs to explain why and how all these people wound up who they are, each with a defining moment.
Thematically, Lost Girls is a study in both class and gender, but finally its power lies with these fine actors. They take us beyond stereotypes and cliché, and make their characters fully human so we know them as people, not as types -- exactly the way theater can triumph.
Through March 12, Theatre Exile, Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St.
Tickets: $10 to $50.