Exposed Brick Theatre; at the Playwrights' Center through November 24

Stacey Pashall's new play, set in the humble environs of an apartment in public housing, is based on the real-life tragedy of a local woman who attempted to drown herself and her twin children in the Mississippi River in 2003. When reporters dug into the woman's history, they found that two similar horrors had occurred in the same building in recent years. Here we first meet Mavis (LaDawn James), a dedicated if moony single mother who recedes into the distance, to be replaced by 16-year-old Tammy (Rebecca J. Wall), another new mother abandoned by her family after the scandal of her pregnancy. Rounding out the tableau is the older Sweets (Jamila Anderson) and upstairs neighbor Alicia (Aamera Siddiqui), a haunted-looking single mother with a bad habit of getting beaten up by her various beaus. Director Suzy Messerole keeps things light and conversational in the early going, and Wall offers up an appropriate low-level frazzled panic as Tammy balances homework, infant care, maneuvering through the social service system, and stoking the faint hope that the father of her child might decide to become a proper parent. Soon Tammy learns why Alicia is so nervous when she visits Tammy's apartment—before Tammy moved in, Mavis had tried to drown herself and her infant son in the apartment's bathroom (the son died, Mavis survived for a time). We're all set here for a chiller of a ghost story, abetted considerably by Anna Lawrence's scenic design and Wu Chen Khoo's lights, which eerily depict the re-emergence from under whitewash of a disturbing vision of paradise Mavis painted on the living-room wall before her demise. By now, James is back onstage, wandering unseen and ushering Tammy into the thicket of mental breakdown. Anderson is called on to spout a measure too much philosophy as wise woman Sweets, and at these times the work drifts from gripping drama into admirable if clunky social commentary. But overall, Shipside produces a disturbing intensity, and it manages a complicated and sympathetic portrait of the forces that buffet the lives of the powerless. One could hope poverty, motherhood, and madness wouldn't intersect, but the evidence of the world suggests otherwise.