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Father (Gerard Catus) and daughter (Isake Akanke) meet for the first time in "The Best Game." (Photo by Willis Miles)

Father (Gerard Catus) and daughter (Isake Akanke) meet for the first time in The Best Game. (Photo by Willis Miles)

Difficult father-daughter relationships appear often enough in plays, but the one in The Best Game, the world-premiere work by Atlanta playwright Paris Crayton III at Decatur’s Porter Sanford Performing Arts Center through April 13, is especially knotty. Father Scott (Gerard Catus) and daughter Leann (Isake Akanke) are not only dealing with a couple decades’ worth of stifled resentments, unresolved problems and unanswered questions, the two of them are also actually meeting for the very first time.

Ambitious 19-year-old NYU student Leann has decided to seek out the father who’s been absent for her entire life: for reasons unknown, he abandoned her mother before Leann was born. It’s an awkward meeting right from the start. In the opening lines, Scott tries his best to figure out what he can offer Leann (A glass of water? A beer? A whiskey?), but nothing seems quite right, a pattern that continues as the polite facades quickly fall away and the larger mystery of what Leann wants and what Scott is able to offer her unfolds.

Crayton, who was recently profiled as one of ArtsATL’s “30 under 30,” is a hugely talented writer, and he maintains our interest and our sympathies for both characters throughout this intense but subtly understated drama.

It’s an ambitious show in that it maintains a tight focus on just two characters and the interplay of emotions between them, but it seldom feels melodramatic or overwrought. Crayton, who also directs, has found an amazing Scott in veteran actor Gerard Catus, who seems to bring not just a character, but a whole interior human cosmography to the stage. We get a sense of Scott’s admirable but ultimately vulnerable philosophies about life and survival. Akanke’s Leann shares something of her father’s doggedness and intractability. But whereas he leads an easy-going life somewhere between derelict and bohemian, she’s a driven perfectionist who can’t stand to see a single loose end or unfulfilled potential.

Crayton masterfully handles the slow revealing of information about the emotional lives of the main characters, and the thing crackles along at the pace of a good mystery with plenty of flashes of insight and humor along the way. The same questions Scott and Leann ask of themselves and each other are the same ones we’re curious about as an audience: What do they want from each other? Why have they waited so long? Why were they estranged to begin with?

A game that the two of them play, quizzing each other on their musical knowledge, leads to what is undoubtedly the play’s most touching moment: Scott plays Leann his favorite song, and the ongoing, mounting tension and awkwardness suddenly take a wild swerve toward a moment of intimacy and affection that’s as beautifully unexpected for the characters as it is for the audience.

But the work’s greatest strengths also tend to play out as some of its greatest weaknesses. The father and daughter are meeting for the first time, so in the end, not enough seems to be at stake. They’re strangers to each other, so their actual investment in each others’ lives has to remain somewhat limited. Still, Crayton is obviously a playwright to watch, and it’s a thing of beauty to see a master actor like Catus get down to business with his work.

The Best Game is the first production of Rising Sage Theatre, the company Crayton has cofounded along with his managing director, Kirk D. Henny. There’s a lot to admire in The Best Game, but perhaps the most exciting thing about it is the sense that “the best game” is actually still very much ahead.

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