A brilliant view of resilience vs. cruelty

The Albany Park Theater project describes itself as "a multi ethnic, ensemble–based theater company of teenagers and young adults, ranging in age from 15 to 23." This is a stunningly dry assessment of a troupe capable of creating work so astonishing beautiful it can inspire gasps of admiration, yet at the same time the work is so profoundly disturbing it might very well drive you to flee the theater.

Such is the case with its current production, "God's Work," which may just be the most devastating, horrific and brutally honest evocation of both child abuse and the extremes of fundamentalist thought ever presented on the stage. Scorchingly graphic and emotionally crushing, the play also is a thrilling piece of art–one made all the more potent and remarkable by the presence of such young but exquisitely honed performers. The 70-minute drama they have spun in collaboration with directors David Feiner and Laura Wiley could easily stand alongside the work of Peter Brook and his early experiments of cruelty. While a sense of redemption and catharsis is present from the start, it is a cruelty that leaves an indelible scar.

The story, based on the experiences of a young company member, is a nightmare darker than any to be found in a Grimm Brothers fairy tale or Dickensian novel. At its center is Rachel (Jennifer Nguyen, an actress whose body is so eloquent she hardly needs to say a word). She is one of ten children in a Romanian family, and like her siblings, she is subjected to the reign of terror of a fanatically religious an emotionally twisted father, Nico Ursan (Jesus Matta), who also has turned his perpetually pregnant wife, Ioana (Ana Ovando), into a wholly passive and terrified woman.

Rachel, who seems to get even more of her share of abuse, also happens to be the lucky one. She is the favorite of a more balanced, secular and deeply loving couple--her childless aunt Irina Florea (Sarah Stanciu) and uncle Petar (D.J. Narvaez). Initially kept alive by them as an infant, she is saved a second time from the brink of madness and the destruction when she is an older child. But it is what occurs before that final, life-altering rebirth that will leave you breathless and sick at the heart.

To a great extent, the story unspools in movement that is as lyrical, haunting and stunningly rendered as anything you might see from a dance company. The "children" (Mareva Lindo, Lawrence Mangalindan, Sanny Chrik, William Kiley, Daniel Cruz, Krystina Mikolowski, Brett Lonis, Ariel Rubin, Mourtaza Ahmad Ali and Angelina Hassler) work together with such seamlessness; trust and conviction that you want to rescue them. Their imprisonment is palpable; whether they are rocking self-healingly on the floor of their basement room, dutifully lining up for mandatory confessions of their trespasses or subjected to the most shocking punishments by their father.

A brush plunged into red paint and swiped across the limbs and faces of the children is the only weapon needed by this cruel man. But that brush is just the symbol that opens the imagination to all terrors ticked off in a rote monotone by the victims. Sick and ever sicker, Nico is clearly in the thrall of some cruel and avenging God of his own devising and Matta plays him with an eerie steadiness that is truly creepy.

To watch his physically and emotionally battered children gather on a steep staircase (Scott Neale's set of peeling wallpaper and enclosed spaces is superb) leaves you feeling both helpless and enraged--as do the stories of fatal child abuse that appear so often in the news.

The chilling score that hums throughout--the work of Colby Bessera and Micah Bezold--heightens the hypnotic effect of the work, as do Debbie Baer's straightjacket-like costumes and Jeremy Getz's filmy lighting. By the end, you may fear for the health of the actors, even if their artistry is beyond dispute.