Father Knows Best 

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The mission of the Firehouse Theatre Project -- to bring thought-provoking new American plays to Richmond audiences for the first time — is achieved with Sam Sheppard's "The Late Henry Moss," a meaty play that is both well-cast and well-produced.

With its rapid-fire script, challenging physicality and some tough subject matter, "Henry Moss" is a difficult play to pull off, but director Morrie Piersol and cast brilliantly balance the rough stuff with intended humor.

In a mesmerizing turn as the bitter, sharp-talking youngest son of a brutal alcoholic, Justin Dray captures the ready-to-strike anger of an abused child. The naturalness he gives the role draws the audience completely into the story of two brothers, played by Dray and Daniel Moore. They're engaged in a paranoid mental boxing match to determine ownership of the family's twisted history.

Watching Dray as the seething Ray Moss reminds me of a young Gary Sinise — all that energy, brilliance and nuance packed tightly into the form of a man remarkably in control as an actor. It is a privilege to see his performance, his last in Richmond before he moves to Los Angeles.

Although Dray is the standout, he's joined onstage by a spectacular cast. Bill Patton thoroughly embodies the drunken, bearish World War II veteran father, Henry Moss, who dies mysteriously before the play begins but comes to life in flashbacks. His mannerisms and tone demonstrate a fully realized character best defined when he is barking inconsistent, alcohol-skewed logic at the other characters.

Having the most fun with her role, Jennie Meharg is Conchalla, the mystical sex goddess who meets Henry in jail, where she proclaims him a dead man. Meharg adds the right amount of spice to Conchalla to create a mythic personality without making her ridiculous.

"The Late Henry Moss" is a feast for thought and audiences will be happy to chow down on this version. S

"The Late Henry Moss," part of the Acts of Faith Festival, shows at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., Thursday-Saturday until March 15 with select Sunday matinees. Tickets are $25. Call 355-2001 or visit www.firehousetheatre.org.

Theater critics Mary Burruss and David Timberline write about the developments in the theater scene on their blog www.richmondvatheater.blogspot.com.

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