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“Touched by an Angel,” a jarring piece of theater in the Tyler Perry mode by local playwrights Phil Davis and Taura “Chyna” Stephens, swivels around a seemingly impossible conundrum.

Young Angel, a 19-year-old college student, is nursing a deepening anger for her overworked mother Cheryl (Daysha Witt). Cheryl, torn between providing for her daughter’s education and taking care of her own dying mother, has become an emotional recluse. Her husband, the good-hearted George (Donald Capers), is struggling to keep the whole rickety trio from breaking apart.

Life in Angel’s household is on the verge of unbearable, as it is for countless teenagers whose parents struggle to make ends meet to a provide a glimmer of hope for their children. The central struggle, between Angel’s need for an emotional connection with her mother and her mother’s insistence on providing a life for her daughter, is about as real and relevant as any issue facing struggling families across the United States.

So why doesn’t “Touched by an Angel” feel more like the visceral wake-up call it set out to be? The writing, though occasionally resorting to clichés and stretching credulity, often crackles with wit. The performances, especially from Capers and Stevens, let us see past the skin of these characters and at least a few inches into their conflicted souls.

The trouble, instead, has something to do with the play’s all-too-predictable formula, lifted directly from the Perry playbook with a few important twists. That formula, in which vignettes of family strife crescendo to a foregone conclusion that is always spiritual in nature, is like riding a familiar roller coaster for the 30th time. The thrills are there. Even the twists and turns are there. But because we know the conclusion by heart, the element of surprise is nowhere to be found.

None of that is to say that “Touched by an Angel” doesn’t contain its share of genuine human drama. By far the best scene in the play comes at the end of the first act in an exchange between Angel and George that is at once side-splitting and full of awful dread for something the audience knows is in the offing. It shows both actors’ gifts for naturalistic comedy (and for dancing). But that naturalistic element is conspicuously absent from most of the play’s other exchanges.

It’s doubtful, despite the play’s preordained ending, that playgoers will predict some of the stranger twists Davis and Stephens inserted into this story line. That’s partially to their credit, but they’ve had to go so far in order to try to overcome the prescription that they approach telenovela territory.

In future work, it would be great to see Davis and Stephens build on the chemistry and genuine audience engagement they achieved in that fraught first-act exchange between Capers and Stevens. These are two gifted minds at work, just waiting to break out of their cage.

touched by an angel

Two and a half stars (Out of four)

When: Through Monday

Where: Buffalo East, 1410 Main St.

Tickets: $10 to $20

Info: 602-6253 or webjam.com/atp2008

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com