Playwright Tom Burmester's powerful drama, the second installment of his “war cycle” about the Iraqi War, mostly reigns in any implied disapproval for America's Misbegotten 21st Century Foreign Adventure to focus on more universal themes of family grief. It's been about a year since U.S. soldier Mike Harper was killed during an Iraqi ambush, and the dead man's family is still coping — or, more accurately, not coping — with their sorrow. Dad Sam (James W. Sudik) is holed away in his cellar, designing an annex to the family home for Sophia (Melissa Collins), the dead boy's shattered widow, to live in, even though the idea flatly appalls her. Meanwhile, Mom Lilith (a nicely brittle Dee Amerio Sudik) engages in a fierce and totally irrelevant feud with Sophia about what to do with the dead soldier's ashes. Into this already semi-toxic atmosphere unexpectedly comes Sgt. Taylor (Jonathan Redding), a former war buddy of Mike's, bringing tragic details of his pal's death, which further rattle the family. Burmester's drama, co-directed with Danika Sudik, displays unusual skill at articulating a family's shaky façade of icy normalcy, as it gives way to rage and despair. Although the piece sometimes falls prey to some stock thematic tropes of the “War Story Genre” (the work occasionally feels as though the playwright wants to be writing about the Vietnam War, a very different military action), the emotions still ring true. Collins' Sophia, bewildered by sadness even as she makes tentative gestures at moving on, is particularly compelling — as is Redding, who offers a complex, disturbing turn as the war buddy. Powerhouse Theater, 3112 2nd Street, Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 25. (800) 595-4849. A Los Angeles Theater Ensemble production.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: April 2. Continues through April 25, 2009

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