Mixing ancient legend and modern psychology, The Love Talker starts slow but by play's end builds into Grand Guignol theater. This foray into magical realism puts a lot of demands on both cast and crew of Thank You Felix, which stages Deborah Pryor's 1986 one-act in the appropriately claustrophobic Studio Theater, in the bowels of Pitt's Cathedral of Learning.
The title character is an Appalachian version of the incubus, the male demon who has sex with sleeping women (not to be confused with his female counterpart, the succubus). This is not a pleasant fantasy. He unleashes the fearsome power of awakening female sexuality, and opens literal as well as metaphorical doors to the woodland fairies. Put away thoughts of kid-friendly fairy tales: These are scary spirits, drawing much from Irish lore with a dollop of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," and transported to the backwoods of the Clinch Mountains in Virginia.
On the human side are two sisters, orphans, one falling to temptation and the other using the charms and chants learned from her grandmother to try to conjure a defense against this physical and spiritual degradation. Think The Exorcist with a twang.
At first, the exposition is rushed and muddled (c'mon guys, would it have hurt the program to identify the first two characters as sisters, plus the time and place?), and the supernatural critters seem like castoffs from Li'l Abner. But soon the horrors start to mount and the giggles go away.
Elizabeth Roberts, as the adolescent sister, makes a splendid willing and willful victim. Erica Highberg, who also directed and oversaw the complex set design, is evocative as the red-haired fairy siren who slinks about (and maybe stinks up) the woods. She's as aggressively feminine as Jeffrey R. Simpson in the title role is brutishly masculine. He's a great hisser, too. Jaime Slavinsky seems more overwhelmed than focused in the pivotal role of the older sister and defender of good. She needs to push both strength and sensuality into her fight with the forces of darkness.
But there's no argument with the great set, suggesting an entangled forest without blocking the action. The low-budget production is ambitious but tight, and works wonderfully once it gets into gear -- a clash of human, spirit, sex and death. What more could anyone want?
The Love Talker continues through Sat., July 28. Thank You Felix at the Studio Theater, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland, 412-612.9000 or www.thankyoufelix.com