THEATRE / Love among the ruins: Paul Taylor on family horrors in Joseph Pintauro's Snow Orchard at the Gate, Notting Hill

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The Independent Culture
TRUE, it lets you know that there's a symbol in the offing, but in most other respects, Snow Orchid, the demure, self-consciously poetic title of Joseph Pintauro's play, scarcely prepares you for the overwhelming display of primal confrontations, spilled guts and emotional wound-openings the evening goes on to afford. Downers in the Rigatoni might be truer to the feel of the piece, which shows the seismic upheavals that occur within an Italian-American family when Rocco, the father (Roger Lloyd Pack), returns home after two years in a lunatic asylum.

Unable to forgive this reformed revenant (full of good intentions now) for the violence he used to inflict on the household, his older gay son Sebbie (Adam Magnani) offers a jeering toast at dinner to the past, before pills had turned their father into a saint. At which point, Rocco - in a swift lunge of wounded psychic slapstick - empties his bottle of Prozac into the pasta and dishes out the pill- enriched result to the startled diners. The gesture is painful and comic at the same time, a mixed mood skilfully created in Tim Luscombe's excellent London Gay Theatre production at the Gate which manages to be intense without being solemn.

If it weren't so heart-rending, you're permitted to feel, all this textbook angst might well be hilarious. 'You can have your bloodbath without me: I pronounce you man and wife,' declares Sebbie after the father has smashed the mother's statue of St Anthony and she has retaliated by giving the orchids he brought back from the asylum a stiff drink of ammonia.

Paola Dionisotti is transfixingly good as this volatile, prayer-babbling, agoraphobic matriarch, who is sexually possessive over Sebbie, her first-born ('the piece of Sicilia' she created to keep her company in her bleak, loveless exile), while dourly dismissive of her 'American' son Blaise (Jude Law). Her unstable accent reeks of dispossession: her manner, veering from the flirtatious to the violent, is that of a woman starving and gives out unsettling danger signals. In her candlelit shuttered shrine, where the clocks seem to have stopped in the late Fifties (the fine set is by Rob Howell), she may remind you of an Italian Miss Havisham, with the difference that, in her case, it is being married rather than being jilted that has created the condition.

'The fireman comes to the fire 22 years too late,' she scoffs at her husband, when, in a hamfisted but heartfelt attempt to both set the record straight and begin anew, he tells her that he never loved her and asks her for a kiss (the sex they had never included kisses). If Roger Lloyd Pack doesn't give you sufficient hints of the ogre Rocco once was, he brings a painful, washed out dignity to the scenes where he attempts to make restitution. An extraordinary confrontation with Sebbie, tauntingly naked before him, is punctuated by Rocco's pathetic attempts to give him a wad of money. The fixity of the son's hatred is a function of the craving for paternal love he can't bring himself to admit.

The proof of that love comes in a moment which, movingly, the son doesn't see. Just about to drive off to a new life in Texas, his boyfriend calls to collect Sebbie. Gently, tactfully, the father entreats this youth to make before him now the sort of promises he could make in a church, were he heterosexual. It's good that the London Gay Theatre Company has put on a play in which the biggest leap of empathyand imagination is made by a non-gay man. Dysfunctional in the great O'Neill / Williams / Inge tradition of American stage families, this one is tentatively starting to operate by the end.

Snow Orchid continues until 27 March at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, London W11 (Box office: 071-229 0706).