David Anzuelo, Martin Ortiz and Shawn Denegre-Vaught in “Manning” at Portland Stage. Photo by James A. Hadley

Zucchini season has started a little early at Portland Stage. Or at least there’s one large squash that’s demanding attention in the world premiere of Benjamin Benne’s “Manning.”

Winner of the theater’s Clauder Competition, the play ties gardening and cooking into a whole lot of important issues for three male family members dealing with the loss of a wife and mother. With dips into the surreal, the 75-minute work imaginatively tries to find ways for the forlorn characters to unlock their pent-up emotions.

After the beloved woman’s recent death, her surviving spouse and two adult sons gather like lost souls at their Tacoma, Washington, home. Dad refuses to eat or even leave his bedroom. The older son attempts half-heartedly to continue to train a falcon to form a hunting team with him. The youngest son tends a garden into which his mother’s ashes have been placed. When a giant zucchini emerges, puzzlement and wonder take the threesome on a fitful journey out of their individual experiences of grief toward some possible resolution – or maybe self-destruction.

Short scenes separated by drumbeats or heartbeats introduce prior character-defining moments to broaden the drama through subtexts of gender, ethnicity and environment. Some speeches directed to the audience resonate well, and brief comedic notes add a welcome respite from the growing sense of danger as the characters threaten to really fall apart.

It’s a bilingual household, and considerable dialogue in Spanish presents a challenge for non-Spanish speakers in the audience, particularly when the spirit of the mother returns to impart poetic wisdom in that language to the men. Translations are offered in the PlayNotes section of the Portland Stage website. But perhaps it is the feelings sensed behind the words that really give the brief play its heft.

David Anzuelo and Annie Henk in “Manning.” Photo by James A. Hadley

David Anzuelo’s Julio is an old school patriarch, a former chef who emerges long enough to give his sons some rapid-fire cooking lessons. Son Sebastian, played by Martin Ortiz, reveals how important control, whether of a bird or his life, is to him as he shouts angrily at brother Freddy, played by Shawn Denegre-Vaught, a gentle soul who’s now more confused than ever by the world.

Annie Henk plays the now otherworldly mother, Ana, in a role that seeks to comfort while the others messily pursue a way forward. Henk also animates the wooden bird, Jasmine.

A multi-level scenic design by Emmie Finckel, costumes by Kathleen Payton Brown and lighting by Christopher Akerlind establish a rustic environment in which director Alex Keegan can give Benne’s simultaneously quirky and all-too-human concept its due.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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