It's hard to imagine a better production of Philip Dawkins' lovely, bittersweet play Failure: A Love Story. Directed with great delicacy and imagination by Allison Heishman for Azuka Theatre, it is a triumph for this superb cast of young actors, some working professionally for the first time.

The plot would be a straightforward one about falling in love if it were told forwardly, but since it's all flashback, and since it takes place in the 1920s, and since it's set in a clock shop, the Fail family's business, it's really about time, and how, when you're remembering, the past seems to be present, just as it does onstage.

The events of the play are both narrated (the story's already over when the play begins and everybody's dead) and enacted (it's happening in the moment before our eyes). So we hear/watch as the immigrant parents arrive in Chicago and three daughters are born: the watchmaker Gerty (the luminous Isa St. Clair), the obsessed swimmer Jenny June (Tabitha Allen), and merry Nelly (Mary Beth Shrader), whose "first word was yes, her second hooray. When a baby floats down the river to them, the family is completed by John N (the outstanding Brendon Dalton), who will become a veterinarian and fill the house with creatures.

When Mortimer Mortimer (Kevin Meehan) walks into the clock shop, the love stories begin, as do the tragic events. Eventually, all the clocks run down ("Where did the time go?"). The play moved me in surprising ways and with the smallest of gestures - a knot in the corner of a drape unties and the bird flies out the window. The simplicity of the performance style - and the unobtrusive skill of the actors - relinquishes the theatrical burden of realism, and lets us fill in the space with our imaginations. It's tempting to mention Beckett and it's tempting to mention Proust, but I won't.

The set, designed by Lindsey Mayer, is elegantly austere and the cast is costumed to perfection by Amanda Sharp.

Failure: A Love Story

Presented by Azuka Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theater, First Baptist Church, 17th and Sansom Streets. Through May 26. Tickets $18-$27.

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