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Something has come unhinged in the mind of Aunt Dan, the larger-than-life protagonist whose twisted ideology sits at the dark heart of "Aunt Dan and Lemon," the penetrating and thoroughly disturbing play by Wallace Shawn that opened last week in Torn Space Theater.

Aunt Dan (short for Danielle), brought to bone-chilling life by the superbly gifted Kirsten Tripp Kelley, is like a reincarnation of Ayn Rand and Adolf Eichmann in the body of a late-20th century libertine. At points, she prowls around the stage like some sort of bloodthirsty cougar, dispensing her confident theories about the need for mass murder like so much folksy wisdom.

Her main audience for these diatribes is Lemon (Kristin Bentley), a sick 11-year-old girl who is in absolute thrall to Dan's stories and whose mind, in due time, becomes warped to the same gnarled shape.

Lemon's neurotic father (Dave Lundy) and liberal mother (Kelly Meg Brennan) seem to have little idea about the content of their longtime friend Dan's nightly heart-to-hearts with their daughter. These conversations range from sordid tales about Dan's past (some believable enough, others seemingly half-true) to one incredibly bizarre recounting of Dan's deep and unwavering obsession with Henry Kissinger. That obsession transmutes into something even more unsettling when voiced by Lemon, for whom Dan's abstracted Kissinger has become something like a god.

Lest anyone think this play is the raving of some bleeding-heart who would rather paint his political enemies as animals than confront the tough questions, Shawn dispenses with that notion right away. He isn't out to parade these patently twisted characters around so that we may more easily dismiss them.

He is much more interested in posing some bold and uncomfortable questions. For instance: To what extent do Americans owe their own prosperity to people like Aunt Dan and her heroes in government? After how many viewings of History Channel specials on the Nazis, "Saw" films and first-person shooters can honest Americans continue to insist that they are not in significant ways attracted to both the prospect and portrayal of violence?

This claustrophobic production, directed with keen attention to detail by David Oliver and a thoughtful economy of expression and movement from his cast, makes audiences feel as if we are all somehow trapped inside the labyrinthine corridors of Aunt Dan's imagination. Greg Faust's set design, featuring an enormous raked stage that seems to fade to an unseen point beyond the back wall, highlights this sense of claustrophobia. It's as if we're peering into some dangerous place from whence return is impossible.

Kelley's performance helps us -- or rather forces us -- to look into that place. Bentley's disturbingly blank and matter-of-fact delivery doesn't allow a bit of irony to seep in when she tosses off such unthinkable sentences as, "There's something I find refreshing about the Nazis." Brennan turns Lemon's mother and her other minor roles into overblown caricatures, while Lundy does some something similar though less grating with his.

Lemon's final speech, in which she claims that the very idea of compassion is a fantasy invented by weak people, is one of the more devastatingly frank and unnerving I've heard. In it, she justifies the unjustifiable, makes ice-cold deductions and poses questions that ought to make audiences shiver.

Shawn deserves plenty of credit for daring to put those questions in her mouth, as does Torn Space for bringing them so ably to the stage.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

***

"Aunt Dan and Lemon"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)        

WHEN: Through April 10    

WHERE: Presented by Torn Space Theater, 612 Fillmore Ave.    

TICKETS: $12 to $20.    

INFO: 812-5733; www.tornspacetheater.com