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As the crowd filed out after Summer Repertory Theatre?s opening performance of ?The Talented Mr. Ripley,? one woman turned to her friends and asked, ?So, what happened??

Understandable question. Phyllis Nagy?s drama, based on Patricia Highsmith?s novel, experiments with the very concepts of reality and identity.

The story stems from a valid and perceptive observation about human nature: We all maintain edited, condensed life stories about ourselves and who we are, which we present to the people around us as needed.

Most of us stick essentially to the truth. But a man without conscience could easily lie, steal and even kill, and then rework the facts to make others accept his version.

Enter Tom Ripley, played with evil but appealing self-assurance by Scott Raker. Presenting himself as an old schoolmate of a rich, instantly likable wastrel named Richard Greenleaf (Tyler Sieple), Ripley is sent by the wayward young man?s parents to bring him back from Italy.

Once there, Ripley encounters an unexpected complication. Greenleaf has fallen for Marge (Kate Thomsen), a sexy and assertive woman who is not easily put off.

From there, events go awry in surprising ways, which no doubt left our puzzled first-nighter wondering who was who, who loved whom, and even who was still alive. To the play?s credit, the woman and her friends had a lively conversation about the show after that, which is often a best indicator of a stimulating script.

Those who know ?The Talented Mr. Ripley? only from the 1999 film version, starring Matt Damon, will find the play version an exercise in pure theater, with a handful of actors moving on an open stage, changing costumes and characters as they go.

That puts pressure on the leading players and their director, Joseph DeLorenzo, to create most of the production?s credibility purely with the performances. The stars handle the challenge well, with each member of the potential triangle coming across as both vital and complex.

The supporting players are equally effective, particularly Christopher Tocco and Samantha Kaliswa Brewster as Greenleaf?s parents and Chris Shea in a dual role, first as Ripley?s dupe and then as his nemesis. Michael Propster creates some comic relief as one of Ripley?s victims, as well as two different servants with slightly different vaudevillian Italian accents.

Kourtney Lampedecchio?s ingenious set design uses a terraced wooden porch and windows suspended on wires to create a backdrop that can serve as any locale. (Because this show is staged in a space designed as a lecture hall, with the seats rising at a steep angle, it?s sometimes hard for viewers at the top to see the faces of actors sitting far downstage.)

Jason Dino?s sound design ? always effective and occasionally a little overpowering ? also helps set the scene with watery sound effects that also underscore a recurring theme in the script. Water dominates the characters? lives, even their dreams, and symbolizes the formless, changing nature of reality itself.

If this all sounds too abstract for a zesty evening of theater, be assured that there?s plenty of sex and violence. Baser appeals combined with a sophisticated and literate script ? who can ask for more than that?

While some may crave a clearer resolution and easier answers to the questions the play raises, others will relish the novelty of a little deliberate ambiguity. It gives everyone something to talk about after the show.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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