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The Man in Her Dreams plays like a taut thriller

Katie Starks as Megan Shepard

Katie Starks as Megan Shepard

Megan Shepard is raped in a neighborhood park. Police focus their attention on Jabari Woods, a black man with a criminal history who happens to live nearby. Though he claims to have been home with his family at the time, she IDs his photo and her testimony helps send Woods to prison. Shepard can start to put her life back together.

Except Woods didn't do it.

Memory's malleable nature is on trial throughout Katherine Glover's new play, The Man in Her Dreams, and it's constantly found wanting. The playwright heaps plenty of other issues on her plate, from racial profiling to a broken justice system to the lasting effects of a violent assault. Though variable acting threatens the evening, Freshwater Theatre's production moves along like a taut thriller.

Glover's play began as a one-woman show, Dead Wrong, at the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Freshwater is remounting it with a full cast. The original told Megan's story. This version expands the scope, taking us deep inside the experiences of Jabari's wife, Nikki, and his mother, Gloria.

A lot of the one-actor DNA remains. All three characters break from the action to directly address the audience. It's an easy technique that can shortchange the drama: Why not just show what happens instead of telling us? But Glover uses it to delve into her main theme: Memory can't be trusted. It may be something as innocent as what Nikki wore on her first date with Jabari, or as vital as the jacket color of Megan's attacker.

A corrupt and uncaring legal system comes under assault. It isn't until Megan goes to the media that Woods is freed, eight years after his wrongful conviction. Glover's play hones in on the emotional turmoil, keeping the blackboard lectures to a minimum to provide us with more of the people we care about.

Katie Starks and Rebecca Gebhart breathe life into Megan and Nikki. Starks's vulnerability as Megan is heartbreaking, and the long-lasting effects of the attack play out in the depths of her eyes. Gebhart's Nikki isn't always likeable, but she's always compelling, whether battling with her mother-in-law or trying to free her husband.

Unfortunately, Julia Hines isn't up to making Gloria real. While her matter-of-fact delivery presents a no-nonsense mother, it falls flat whenever she has to share the stage. Her robotic gestures and stiff presence bring a community-theater-level performance to this otherwise nuanced, professional work.

One character we don't spend as much time with is Jabari, though Richard "Doc" Woods presents a rock-steady character when he gets the chance. He spends most of the second act away in prison, appearing briefly as an orange-clad figure or a voice on an audiotape. There are times we hunger for more details about his life, especially considering Woods's inviting performance.

Freshwater's ambition has sometimes outstripped its resources in the past, but The Man in Her Dreams is a well-conceived and well-directed play. It deals with vital issues without letting them overwhelm the humans at the heart of the story.