Perhaps the greatest thing about a small theatrical playing space is the immediacy and intimacy engendered by sitting so close to suspense and terror. Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius,” directed by Francis Gercke at Cygnet Theatre Company’s Rolando space through May 10, is a case in point. Suspense belongs to Gercke’s taut direction; terror lies in the fight choreography of George Yé.
The lightning-fast play concerns estranged sisters — one obviously well off, the other penniless — who come together in the ruins of their former lives following the death of the mother they share in common. They contend for a valuable stamp collection left to the impecunious Jackie (Jessica John), with whom our sympathies lie. There is no will, and because grandfather was not related to Jackie by blood, the well-dressed Mary (Sandy Campbell) claims the prize, which she holds close to her chest, claiming she’ll never share or sell it because of sentiment.
Jackie takes the stamp collection to Philip (Jack Missett), a shady dealer who refuses even to look at it without a $2,000 fee. Jackie leaves, but not before meeting the even more nefarious Dennis (John DeCarlo), who follows her home and presents himself and a deal, including the outrageously dangerous and volatile Sterling (Manny Fernandes).
The play takes its name from the island located off the coast of Africa, notorious for its 19th-
century issue of flawed one- and two-cent stamps. As Dennis says, it’s the flaws that make things valuable, including people. Suddenly, the stamp collection is of great interest to Philip, Dennis and Sterling. The remainder of the riveting play spins around the authenticity of the stamps and who is willing to go to what lengths and at what peril to keep or get them.
Rebeck never reveals what caused the rift between Jackie and Mary or what caused Mary to abandon the household while Jackie was still prepubescent. Nor do we learn what Jackie has endured since to make her feel so entitled to this legacy. But that does not matter. What does matter is the suspense, the double-crossing and the downright violence that occur within five rows of our noses.
Sean Fanning creates a seedy set with shelves and filing cabinets that convert before our eyes between the steadily emptying home where Jackie and Mary were raised to Philip’s dirty office. John is credited with the costume design, which is bang-on for all involved. Especially admired are Mary’s stylish getups and Dennis’ remarkable shirttails and vest. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design puts us near railroad or El tracks in a big city, and as usual, Eric Lotze’s lighting evokes locale and time of day. The suspense comes courtesy of Rebeck and Gercke and this tight ensemble of fine actors.
Cygnet closes its final season at the Rolando Space with John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s cult rock musical, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” playing June 3 through Aug. 9. Next up (May 2-31) at Cygnet’s Old Town Space is Polly Pen and Lawrence Klavan’s musical, “Bed and Sofa,” which played at Rolando, as did “Hedwig.”
“Mauritius” continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through May 10, at Cygnet’s Rolando Stage, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. For tickets ($28-$38) and information, visit www.cygnettheatre.com or call (619) 337-1525.