Class Over Kin

British playwright Willy Russell's musical Blood Brothers is a brooding melodrama about magic, superstition and the dark divide of class. The play opens on an ominous scene. Gray light covers the stage. Starlight winks above. Foreboding and sorrowful music rises from the tiny "orchestra." Spread across the stage are the shadowy figures of two seemingly dead men. They are, we discover, the Johnstone twins, brothers who were separated at birth. One was given away by a mother "so cruel she's a stone in the place of her heart."

The play unwinds like a well-worn folk tale. We know how it ends; it's the way the story's told, full of warnings and old wives' tales, that makes us listen. And under the direction of Jim Phillips at Theater LaB, the storytelling is simply enchanting.

It starts with Mrs. Johnstone (Deborah Boily), a hard-working single mother of more children than she can feed. She scrubs floors for the fancy Mrs. Lyons (Heather Bryson), who is as infertile as she is rich. When poor Mrs. Johnstone finds out she's expecting again, this time with twins, Mrs. Lyons schemes a way to get one of the babies.

Chilly-hearted Mr. Lyons is out of the country on business for the rather convenient time span of nine months. So Mrs. Lyons gets her son without having to tell anyone the infant has been adopted.

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Of course, it's just this sort of secret that drives a person mad. And Mrs. Lyons, who's already a bit wiggy, goes to all sorts of lengths to keep folks from finding out her terrible secret. She even tells Mrs. Johnstone, who's full of working-class superstitions, that if the boys ever discover they are twins, they will die on the spot.

Naturally, the brothers Mickey and Eddie grow up and find each other anyway. They are seven, "almost eight," when they first meet. Mickey (Jonathan McVay) is a wonderful little hoodlum from the wrong side of the tracks. He teaches rich boy Eddie (Joel Sandel) how to curse and be nasty. Scrubbed-up Eddie hands out sweets and gobs of adoration to his new friend. He's a lonely little rich boy whose mother is pathetically overprotective. Eventually, though, the boys move apart, never learning the truth about their relationship. When they grow up and meet again, class becomes an enormous divide that the two men find themselves unable to cross.

Though the plot is predictable, the story remains riveting to the end. Tremendous energy comes from the wonderfully antithetical performances given by McVay and Sandel. McVay's Mickey, with his skinned-up knees and dirty face, is the perfect foil for Sandel's Eddie, whose slicked-down hair never moves out of place. And somehow these grown-up actors bring a wonderful childlike exuberance to their roles.

Boily's Mrs. Johnstone is also strong. But more than anything it's Boily's voice -- so warm and rich and moving that she manages to find some sort of truth in every song -- that makes her performance memorable. In fact, every actor sings well and brings a lusty energy to the stage. And Steven Jones's musical direction is an act of sorcery. The tiny band supporting the singers makes a full sound.

Blood Brothers is easily the most engaging production Theater LaB has mounted this season. It is a simple tale with a simple message. Class divides us as nothing else can. Even blood can't bridge this enormous gulf.

Blood Brothers runs through May 30 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo. (713)868-7516. $20-$22.

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