Bethany Jillard (left) and Irene Poole in The Little Years.
The idea that women suffer when they are thwarted by sexism is not exactly new. And John Mighton's play on the subject is almost 20 years old. But it comes across as fresh in this production, originally staged by the Stratford Festival and reworked for the Tarragon stage.
That's because the writing is so outstandingly good, dealing with issues still very much on our current social agenda, like high school bullying, the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs to women and the still widespread belief that the term "female scientist" is an oxymoron.
High schooler Kate (Bethany Jillard), who has grown up in the shadow of her popular brother William, has a passion for math that is causing her big trouble in her 50s classroom. She asks so many questions she gets relegated to a vocational school.
Her mother, Alice (Chick Reid), can't fathom Kate's intellectual interests. William's wife, Grace (Pamela Sinha), tries to connect to Kate, urging her to join study groups and, later on, to get involved in the social changes of the 60s, while Kate withdraws from life. But Kate, played by Irene Poole as an adult, can't cope and is eventually institutionalized, where she experiences all the abuses that were disguised as therapy at the time.
Also in the picture is Roger (Ari Cohen), a visual artist who gains fame for his work - "the Barry Manilow of the art world" - even though everything about it is plain lazy. Noticeably missing is famous poet William, a man who can dominate even in absentia.
But this piece is as much about time and its cosmic significance as anything else. Does it exist? Can it be measured? Every scene contains content that resonates with the discussion of temporal vagaries.
And the performances are exceptional, the only weak link being Cohen, who's a bit whiny. Sinha, however, shows great range as the liberated woman trying to bring Kate out of her shell.
Poole, silent and unresponsive most of the time, is nevertheless riveting and delivers a powerful emotional payoff in the last scene. As the mother who never grasps the impact of her decisions, Reid is also excellent, especially as the aging Alice in a nursing home scene, one of Mighton's subtlest.
But the revelation here is Jillard as young Kate and Tanya, the older Kate's niece. Passionate and mercurial, she has a charismatic presence that gives added weight to every line.
Though Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design is wonderful - the party sequences are terrific - I'm not sure director Chris Abraham has the best design to work with. Julie Fox has given him a huge stage area that the action never covers, which creates a distancing effect when the piece could use more intimacy.
But this is a tiny complaint about a fine production of an intellectually exciting and emotionally potent play.