Summer theater has the reputation for being light and frothy. Not so this summmer - at least in Boston. If you choose to leave the lovely summer evening for a dark theater, beware: You may be entering an even darker universe. While sometimes a serious play can leave one feeling renewed and understanding a bit more about mankind and the universe, three of the four I saw recently had a fascination with sordid history, voyeurism, threats, and violence. While there are bursts of insight in them, you might be better off to stay home and listen to the crickets.
The one you should see, although the subject matter is depressing, is Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, playing at the Boston Shakespeare Company by First Act Repertory. The play, by South African playwright Athol Fugard, is a story of two blacks who must run the gantlet of government interference in order to work and live. While it is a searing look at the effects of apartheid, the tenderness and joy that the men express despite these obstacles soften the impact as well as making it even more heartbreaking.
Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, also presented by the First Act Repertory, pulls the blinds on a perverse, miserable marriage and its continuing effects, long after the parents' deaths, on the lives of their daughters. Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay shows us parents who fling recriminations and aim poisoned darts at each other's soft spots. The two daughters, later in time, wrangle over the memory of their parents' fights and over each other's adjustment to the tragedy. This, the bleakest of the lot, has little to recommend it.
The Widow's Blind Date, by the Next Move Theatre at the Huntington Theatre Company, also shows how the tentacles of a wretched early experience choke off life long after the fact. A sophisticated young widow has a ''reunion'' with two old schoolmates at work in a paper-baling warehouse. Her visit sets off a chain of rivalry between these two beer-guzzling, macho lunks that leads to violence and exposes a horrifying secret. This is the latest play by Israel Horovitz (''The Indian Wants the Bronx''), who lives in Wakefield, Mass., and it's filled with in-jokes that suburbanites will either bristle at or love. In spite of its billing as a ''dramatic thriller,'' it's not filled with much suspense until the chilling denouement.
La Turista, playing at the New Ehrlich Theatre, is an early Sam Shepard nightmare that takes sardonic jabs at Midwestern tourists traveling in Mexico and at medicine, both the witch-doctor and the American-quack kind. The title is the name of an intestinal ailment that is supposed to attack tourists, and the play is filled with discussions of the condition of an ailing husband. Written in 1967, it has a loopy, psychedelic flavor. And, as usual with Shepard, people stand around threateningly after they're asked to leave.