Director Jon Tracy sets the mood right off — a combination of ominous and otherworldly — in his production of Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe's "Terminus."
In the 2007 drama, now in a stunning American premiere at Magic Theatre, the theater is misty and dimly lit from the minute patrons enter, and the stage (set design by Robert Brill) is a stark, rectangular, slanted expanse covered with what looks like coal.
A thunderous roar (sound design by Sara Huddleston) signals the opening.
As it unfolds, the play, which runs an hour and 45 minutes without intermission, feels like a roller-coaster ride through a sort of modern-day hell that's both queasily familiar and unimaginable.
It comprises three interlocking and interwoven monologues by three nameless characters living in Dublin.
Each appears in a pool of light amid an impenetrable blackness, as though suspended in an isolated netherworld. Their three separate and lonely lives are ultimately revealed to connect in strange ways.
One character, played with equal parts charm and rage by the magnificent Carl Lumbly, is a serial killer crippled by shyness, who long ago sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a beautiful singing voice.
Another, Stacy Ross at her most emotionally expressive, is a former schoolteacher who works at a suicide hotline. One day she is compelled to wander the mean streets of the city to track down a desperate caller, one of her former students, who has confessed plans for a very late-term abortion.
A young girl, an open-faced, vulnerable Marissa Keltie, goes out drinking with friends and finds herself not only betrayed by them but in mortal danger — until she is rescued by a demon whose description may haunt your dreams.
The three individual stories pour out in anguished torrents of lilting, Irish-inflected script by O'Rowe ("Howie the Rookie"), written almost entirely in rhyme. The effect is hypnotic.
In language that's poetic and elevated yet vernacular and even at times comic, the individual tales of violence, horror and psychic (and physical) pain are riveting.
They lead to a finale, a "terminus," that beautifully transcends the sum of the parts and provides a sort of redemption for the characters and a blessed release for the audience.
Tracy and cast maintain just the right levels of intensity and pacing required for the writ words and images to soar. It's all a reminder of the elemental power of good actors telling a good story.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes June 16
Tickets: $22 to $62
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org