The play opens with a distraught Jake (Andy Serkis) making a late night call to brother Frankie (Peter McDonald) in which he confesses to killing his wife. In fact, wife Beth (Catherine McCormack) is not dead but, as we see in the next hospital scene, Jake has beaten her to within an inch of her life, her body as twisted and mangled as her now damaged brain.
The couple retreat to their separate families who close ranks around each in a manner of protection akin to smothering. Neither fare well. While Beth's knocks to the skull result in blank stares and idiot-savant babblings, Jake loses his marbles in much creepier fashion thanks to the burden of grief, guilt and family secrets.
Shepard's 1986 drama, directed here assuredly by Wilson Milam, is an unsettling dissection of family loves and loyalties and their bitter cousins - suspicion, resentment, betrayal and more than a hint of deep-seated hatred. In Shepard's harsh world, parents disappoint and dissemble and siblings prod each other in all of the most painful places.
Each of the eight characters is rendered in full vulnerability by a near faultless cast. On Jake's side of the family tree, Serkis bristles with menace as the man himself, Sinead Cusack is fantastic as his ballsy mother whose attempts to detain Jake reveal her lingering fears of male desertion, and McDonald is touchingly sweet as the younger brother who remains devoted even with a bullet hole in his leg and a half-naked woman at his side. As the sister, Nicola Walker fuels one of the most spine-tingling scenes with her description of how her alcoholic father died.
Unlike Jake's posse, Beth's family is still intact but no less dysfunctional for it. Her parents are Little and Large incarnate. Keith Bartlett's patriarch, who has denied his wife even a peck of affection for 20 years, hulks grumpily over sweet Meg, played by Anna Calder-Marshall with batty distraction and a side-splitting delivery of such daft lines as "Don't yell in the house, the walls can't take it". Meanwhile, Andrew Tiernan is at turns supportive and sinister as hunt-mad, big brother Mike whose lust for vengeance taints his concern for his invalid sister.
Tom Piper's set, split down the middle like the family camps, may be a tad too cluttered for proceedings. The angles create some blocking nuisances for sections of the audience - but then, that's always a challenge with the three-sided Donmar stage.
At three hours, including two intervals, Shepard's script could also benefit from a little decluttering. Half an hour less could make it that much more explosive. Still, this is an undeniably powerful evening and a very worthwhile revival.