05/31/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Theater Review: Woman in Mind

Twenty years ago, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's poignant and profound Woman in Mind blazed across several Los Angeles stages with talented performers Helen Mirren, Kandis Chappel, Paxton Whitehead, Hal Landon, Jr., and JD Cullum. Now, after a long absence, Ayckbourn's play has returned to Los Angeles with a dazzling performance by Sharon Sharth in the leading role, along with a gifted supporting ensemble and excellent direction by Christian Lebano.

The play begins as English housewife Susan (Sharth) wakes up in her suburban garden after an unfortunate encounter with a garden rake that has knocked her cold. The local doctor (Dan Wingard), who is tending to her, is speaking in a strange, unintelligible language, and she is soon visited by her delightful imaginary family -- her dashing husband Andy (Rees Pugh), lively daughter Lucy (Victoria J. Mayers) and devoted son Tony (Angus McEwan).

We soon learn that Susan's real family is much different and hardly delightful. Her husband Gerald (David Hadinger) is a dour vicar and her sister-in-law Muriel (Anne Etue) is a dreary widow. It is no wonder that Susan has invented a rich fantasy life to escape the drudgery of her everyday existence, which includes a largely absent son (Nathan Hertz) who steadfastly refuses to speak to his mother.

The genius of Ayckbourn's play lies in the exquisitely delicate balance that he creates between Susan's rich fantasy life and the ennui of her everyday existence. Blending humor and pathos, Ayckbourn paints a portrait of the duality of reality and imagination, and of the treacherously narrow chasm between truth and fantasy. Susan is the adventurer in this journey between prosaic sanity and neurotic escape. And in her journey, Ayckbourn dissects the heart of a very human dilemma.

Sharth's magnificently powerful performance is a beacon for this production. She moves deftly between humor and tragedy, never losing sight of the profound inner conflicts of her character. Sharth is an actress of extraordinary range and talent, and puts all her powers to work in this memorable role. Hadinger is outstanding as Susan's husband, subtly reacting to her powerful emotional swings, and Wingard is excellent as the bewildered local doctor. Pugh, Mayers and McEwan are wonderful as the ideal family, and Etue and Hertz are spot on in the roles as sister-in-law and son.

Director Lebano is both faithful to Ayckbourn's play and imaginative in his execution, guiding the ensemble through the tricky shifts in tone throughout the play. Sets by Matthew G. Hill, costumes by Liz Nankin and sound design by Barry Schwam deserve particular praise. And kudos to the Sierra Madre Playhouse and producer Estelle Campbell for a wonderful cap to an outstanding season.