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Festival of One-Act Plays review: Powerful

"There are times I wish he hadn't been born. My own son. How can I feel that way?" asks a mother of a teenager who shot to death his best friend, four other schoolmates and himself.

"Why did you kill my baby?" an American soldier returning from Afghanistan quotes a mother, who, along with her daughter, were sacrificed as Taliban human shields.

Never in its 16 years has Theatre Three's Festival of One-Act Plays struck such a devastatingly topical note. Usually the collection of world premieres is a balance of comedy and drama deftly selected by director Jeffrey Sanzel among more than 500 submitted entries.

"The Shrine," by Michael Edan, centers visually on a votive-candle tableau (dramatic lighting by Michelle Manda), which Grace lights each morning in memory of her slain son. On this day, she's visited by Miranda, mother of Alex's murderer. Convincingly tormented as portrayed by Jen Gillen-Goldstein, Miranda seeks forgiveness for her son. It's not without compassion that Grace, inconsolable as played by Linda May, declines her entreaty. Alex's ghost (Dylan Whelan) lingers beyond their apprehension.

The play was selected by Sanzel before the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Dry eyes are not an option.

In the aptly titled "Collateral Damage," by Vietnam veteran George Bryjak, Roger (a tightly wound Danny Amy), drives home with his wife (anxious Maryellen Molfetta) upon his return from Afghanistan. Their children eagerly await Dad's homecoming. But Roger is afraid to see them. His recurring nightmare has left him emotionally disfigured. The horrible truth is that his moral dilemma is so common that it's shared by hundreds of returning veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder cannot begin to describe his invisible disability.

No less tear-inducing is "Ripple Effect," by Jon Spano. Steve McCoy plays Peter, a middle-aged husband of a recently deceased gay man. The survivors of the "gay holocaust" -- the AIDS epidemic -- lived long enough to marry. James Schultz as Chaz, a generation-younger homosexual, is the target of Peter's anguish. "I'm not apologizing for being 25," Chaz replies to Peter's remonstrations. Loss of a spouse transcends same-sex/opposite-sex distinctions.

In Mark Cornell's "One Life," a twin's life span (we never meet his sibling) is covered in 10 minutes without a word from the protagonist, engagingly mimed by Brian Smith to rotating narration. There are a few chuckles along the way, welcome in the context of the otherwise heavy fare.

"Man's Best Friend," by Rod McFadden, stars Odell Cureton as a husband and father coping with bad news by means of an imaginary dog. Phyllis March as his wife and Tamralynn Dorsa as their daughter handle his delusion endearingly.

"Theater in the Red," a Joan Broadman farce featuring March and Molfetta, feels isolated. A companion comedy would make its commentary on the commercial demands of small-time show business seem less trivial.

Laughter is not a guilty pleasure. Still, the evening's dramatic virtues far outweigh any such demerit.

WHAT The 16th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays

WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through April 6, Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the Second Stage, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson

INFO $14;, 631-928-9100

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