In “Cal in Camo,” now receiving a ferociously acted Midwest premiere at Rivendell Theatre, playwright William Francis Hoffman conjures a perfect storm of human and natural disasters in which a down-on-his-luck salesman, his emotionally scarred wife (suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression), and the wife’s brother (a mentally unstable loner whose wife has just died under dramatic circumstances) wrestle with nothing less than their very existence.

Each of these characters is in desperate need of help, but it’s the couple’s newborn baby you may want to rescue while simultaneously placing a call to the Department of Children and Family Services.

‘CAL IN CAMO’
Recommended
When: Through Feb. 17
Where: Rivendell Theater, 5779 N. Ridge
Tickets: $38
Info: (773) 334-7728;
www.RivendellTheatre.org
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Keith Kupferer plays Flynt and Ashley Neal plays his sister, Cal, in the Rivendell Theatre production of William Francis Hoffman’s play “Cal in Camo.” | Michael Brosilow photo

The place is Sterling, Illinois, a small city on the north bank of Rock River, where Cal (Ashley Neal), and her fish-out-of-water husband, Tim (Eric Slater), have bought a starter home. Tim is a beer salesman who has spent his whole life in Chicago, but hesitantly agreed to move to this rural outpost after his wife, who had little interest in having a child, said she would only agree to do so if they fled the city. Now, the pair’s relationship is a continual test of bitter arguments and resentments.

As we learn, it’s not as if Cal had anything even close to an idyllic childhood in a similarly rural area. In fact, her mother abandoned the family soon after she was born, leaving her and her older brother, Flynt (Keith Kupferer) adrift and, although it’s never specifically mentioned, probably farmed out to a series of difficult foster homes. Now, Cal’s past has come home to haunt her. Unable to breast-feed her baby daughter — or to bond with the infant in any way — she has sent a plane ticket to Flynt, her impoverished, profoundly unstable, trailer-dwelling brother, hoping that her only connection to “family” might be a much-needed balm.

But Flynt also is in need of a rescue. He is suffering from profound guilt over the death of his beloved wife, Annabel, who he was unable to rescue when she was suddenly caught up in flood waters at a river near their home. Was it suicide? The word is never used, but it certainly is an open question.

Cal has failed to tell her husband that their property is located near a giant sinkhole that could be disastrous should the nearby river be flooded in a storm. Flynt, a hunter keenly attuned to nature (and to natural disaster), figures this out almost immediately. And while he and Tim have never connected, a conversation about hunting and rifles — and the appearance of a keepsake that belonged to Tim’s father, a Chicago police captain — results in much-needed male bonding.

An epic encounter with a drowning doe during a storm becomes a psychic breakthrough for Flynt, with Kupferer, an exceptional actor, tapping into all the poetry and physicality of a long monologue chronicling the event to riveting effect. The actor also does a magnificent job delivering a primal lesson in the nurturing of a child to his sister, with Hoffman’s poetic writing and Neal’s soul- (and skin-) baring response a stunning piece of theater. Neal, who left such a vivid impression in Rivendell’s previous production – a stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” — is an actress of almost terrifyingly raw intensity. Slater does a fine job of suggesting a man just barely managing to hold on to a life that seems to be betraying him on every front.

Hoffman’s play (enhanced by Joanna Iwanicka’s fine set, Charles Cooper’s lighting, Victoria Deiorio’s sound, and Janice Pytel’s costumes) is an exercise in such extreme, pressure-cooker-like dysfunction that it can sometimes test believability. But under Hallie Gordon’s direction the actors’ relentlessness never wavers. If you approach “Cal in Camo” as a 21st century Midwest American gothic tale you won’t be disappointed, but you might need something stronger than a beer in its wake.

Note: On opening night, Danny McCarthy, the invariably wonderful actor, played the role of a bar owner in the drama’s rare comic scene. Rivendell artistic director Tara Mallen will play it for the remainder of the run.

Ashley Neal plays Cal and Eric Slater is her husband, Tim, in the Rivendell Theatre production of “Cal in Camo.” | Michael Brosilow photo