Private investigator Lili (a luminous Lauren English) is a lovelorn lesbian. Her dysfunctional sister, Mary (Maggie Mason, charmingly hyperactive), who imagines herself as Joan of Arc, is on the lam.
Their mother, Eleanor (a powerfully focused Lorri Holt), is missing in action, but we know where she is: on a solitary wilderness expedition to reinvent herself.
There’s a fourth woman, too, played with captivating alacrity by Rebecca Dines: Renee, a paleontologist whom we first see delivering a lecture about dinosaurs.
It helps to know these basic things in advance, because the opening scenes of Magic Theatre’s production of Claire Chafee’s “Why We Have a Body” are confusing, starting with off-kilter Mary onstage alone, wildly pointing a gun at the audience. Turns out she’s holding up a convenience store, after which she escapes arrest, still in handcuffs, and phones her disapproving sister for help.
All these thematic threads eventually weave together in revelatory ways, homing in on Lili and Renee’s conflicted relationship, in this densely written, at times poetic comedy.
Things start to come into focus soon enough. During a flashback, Lili meets unhappily married Renee on an airplane, and with that tentative, beautifully rendered encounter, all the characters and their ambiguous and ambivalent relationships begin to coalesce.
“Why We Have a Body” was a big hit for the Magic Theatre 18 years ago, and artistic director Loretta Greco was wise to open the 45th season with it because it so well represents the Magic today — still devoted to new works, but from a female-dominated sensibility. Greco plans to revisit previous successes now and again, leading up to the 50th anniversary.
The intermissionless play comprises a series of short scenes (including phone calls and a few flashbacks) and monologues delivered directly to the audience.
Marsha Ginsberg’s black-and-white set design, although it incorporates too many pieces of furniture that have to be lugged about as scenes change, is nevertheless effective in that it expands the Magic’s stage lengthwise.
The superb cast — directed by Katie Pearl with careful attention to comic and poignant nuances — makes use of every inch of space as well as every syllable of Chafee’s witty text. By the end, each woman’s individual quest — for love, for a rebirth of sorts, for family, for human connection — touches our hearts in unexpected ways.
Why We Have a Body
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 2
Tickets: $30 to $75
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org