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Bitter, funny 'Skirmishes'; 'Taking Steps'; urban Dinosaur; 'Barber'

''Skirmishes'' is an unflinchingly honest (and graphic) play about the difficulties of coping with a dying parent. It is also surprisingly funny and tender.

What's at stake is one sister's resentment at handling full responsibility for her mother's care, while the other, pleading husband and children as excuses , has gotten off scot-free. The accusations fly like salvos in the ''skirmishes'' between the dependable caretaker Jean (Deborah Battis) and squeamish, evasive Rita (Donna Asali).

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It's a battle not without humor, however. The brand is gallows humor that's as appalling as it's funny: The two argue over the wording of the obituary while their mother sleeps. But there are moments of great tenderness when hurt feelings are put aside.

Aside from harping tiresomely long on the ''You never helped me - I couldn't, I had the kids'' theme, ''Skirmishes'' is a finely crafted play. While Jean (in spite of her at times excoriating tongue) is the one shown to be more humane, playwright Catherine Hayes doesn't entirely load the play on her behalf. Both sisters grow, and a viewer's sympathies toward them end up evenly weighted.

Michael Oster has directed with great sensitivity and needlework precision down to the smallest details of character.

The acting is some of the best I've seen this year: The two have created strong and full characters. One stunning moment occurs when Miss Asali finally starts to take charge and bathes her mother (played simply and well by Sandra Levitt) as tenderly as she would one of her children. As Battis hears Asali's crooning, and the mother's whimpers of recognition, her face registers a whole world of feelings: loss, relief, shame, annoyance.

The heart of the play is about learning to love: Rita learns about staying power; Jean gains a little more grace. It's certainly not about a conventional sense of love, expressed in valentines or sweet words, but rather a gritty hanging in there for the duration. ''Skirmishes'' is a difficult and lovely play - and worth seeing. (At the Alley Theatre through May 26.)

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