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With apologies to Rabbi Kushner, Paul Donnelly’s new play, The Taste of Fire, produced by the Charter Theatre, might be subtitled When Bad Things Happen to Bad People. The bad person, abusive family man David Nicholson (Chris Stezin, also the set despigner), is killed by saintly family man Roger Cusak (Jim Brady), who gets in his car after having too much to drink at a celebration of his recent promotion. Both father characters are pretty much dispatched by the accident: David literally, Roger through appropriate feelings of self-loathing and remorse. But the fallout from the accident continues to ripple through their families. Brittle wife Susan Cusak (Maura McGinn)—picture any Joan Allen character—deals with tragedy by avoiding her feelings, as she has done throughout the marriage. Her counterpart, Carla Nicholson (Lee Mikeska Gardner), finds that though the accident cost her a husband, it has actually repaid her with new respectability as a tragic widow and a built-in coterie of friends among the members of MADD. The most interesting part of the play is how the accident affects the families’ teenage children: Larissa Cusak (Brittney K. Sweeney) starts out as one of those lippy girls you want to slap when you see them “whatever”ing each other on Ricki Lake. Her response to the accident is to go from being daddy’s little girl to daddy’s little redeemer. As emotionally engaged as her mother is detached, Larissa takes as the object of her attempted penance young Ethan Nicholson (played with fist-to-the-solar-plexus intensity by Jon Cohn). Like his mother, Ethan is arguably better off after his father’s death; unlike her, he doesn’t have to lie to himself about it. Keith Bridges’ production flows throughout the tiny Glaser-Luchs Studio Theatre, supporting the text in symbolic ways. True memories happen in one corner, false in another. A sandwich served to Carla is cleared away by Susan, undercutting their superficial differences and reminding us that in their grief, and the universal admonishment by loved ones to “eat something,” they are more alike than different. Stezin’s set—of two simple chairs, a table, and an inclined board—serves as both houses and to highlight the fundamental similarities between the two families, the spare white shapes providing a neutral background onto which they spill their guts. Not all of the performances engage the viscera like Cohn’s, and of the adult characters, only Carla undergoes surprising development. Where the production succeeds best is in tweaking the cliches of the dead saint and evil drunk driver enough to enable you to reconsider them.—Janet Hopf